Decision Day in NJ’s U.S. Senate Race

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — New Jersey’s U.S. Senate race went to the voters Wednesday as both candidates characterized the race as a referendum on the partisan gridlock paralyzing Washington.

Democrat Cory Booker and Republican Steve Lonegan each cast a ballot early in the morning in the special election to fill the seat of the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg, who died in June.

The election is the first since the partial federal government shutdown began more than two weeks ago.

“Whatever the outcome of this election, the nation will be watching New Jersey as a referendum on what’s going on in Washington, D.C.,” Booker said after voting at an apartment complex in downtown Newark.

Booker, the high-profile mayor of New Jersey’s largest city, circulated a petition to end the shutdown and accused Congress of failing voters by not finding a way to work together.

Lonegan supports the shutdown, arguing the Affordable Care Act should be delayed a year and objecting to the concept of government-directed health insurance. In recent days, he has accused Booker of not even living in Newark.

After voting in Bogota, the city he led as mayor for three terms, Lonegan said he has been able to unite Republicans of all stripes.

“We’ve unified and I’m proud of that,” he said. “The entire Republican party, from the tea party to the moderate wing to pro-life and not so pro-life. Everybody who cares about individual liberty.”

The two-month campaign has played out under a compressed schedule and was the subject of controversy even before the two candidates were chosen.

Republican Gov. Chris Christie appointed a GOP caretaker and ordered the election held Oct. 16, the soonest date the law allowed following an unprecedented August primary.

Critics accused the governor of keeping the race off the Nov. 5 ballot, when he is up for re-election, to make it easier for him to win big as a Republican in a Democratic-leaning state and aid his potential national ambitions. During his first debate, he refused to rule out a run for president in 2016.

Public opinion polls showed Booker, 44, the second-term mayor of Newark, with a double-digit advantage heading into the election, where he hoped to secure a seat as the second African-American in the Senate along with Republican Tim Scott of South Carolina.

Lonegan, 57, the former state director of Americans for Prosperity, a group advocating limited government that was founded by the billionaire Koch brothers, ran an aggressive, in-your-face campaign.

“We want a leader, not a tweeter,” he said at one point, referring to the mayor’s prolific use of Twitter, where he has 1.4 million followers.

Both candidates drew on some big names for support — Oprah Winfrey helped raise funds for Booker, while the nation’s largest tea party political action committee brought former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin in to campaign for the GOP nominee.

The campaign took odd twists and turns for both candidates.

Booker was forced off-message to explain G-rated correspondence with a stripper he met while filming a social media documentary. Lonegan was forced to dump a longtime strategist after a lengthy, profanity-laced interview with a political web site in which he claimed Booker’s banter with the stripper “was like what a gay guy would say.”

While in Newark, Booker has worked with Christie on common education goals, such as ending lifetime teacher tenure and increasing the number of charter schools. Newark schools remain under state control.

Lonegan repeatedly knocked Booker for the city’s high crime rate and unemployment. At one point in the campaign, Booker announced a new crime-fighting strategy to cope with a string of 10 homicides in 10 days.

Lonegan, the onetime mayor of small-town Bogota in Bergen County, said he, too, has reached across the aisle in working with a Democratic borough council.

But Booker painted him as a tea party extremist, one who would — if sent to Washington — make the capital’s gridlock worse.