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There may be just one thing that stands between Cory Booker and victory in the Garden State’s special election for a Senate seat: the Jersey Shore.
A trio of polls released in the first week of the race offered a snapshot of the lengthy head start the Newark mayor enjoys against three other Democrats vying for the nomination. But his campaign will be banking on a motivated volunteer effort to ensure that support manifests into votes in the likely low-turnout mid-August primary.
“Half the state” will be “down the shore” when the Aug. 13 primary arrives, said David Redlawsk, director of the Rutgers-Eagleton Poll.
In the past week alone, Booker reeled in the endorsement of party power broker George Norcross, embarked on a lucrative West Coast fundraising trip and hired a campaign team with presidential credentials. The populist mayor, who is already pulling in majority support in surveys, is no doubt the one to beat for the seat of late Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg, who died June 3.
Still, few Garden State Democrats — including Booker’s own campaign, which wants its grass-roots army in high gear — are ready to anoint the undisputed front-runner as the next senator. That’s especially so with a midsummer primary and three legitimate opponents standing in the way: Reps. Frank Pallone Jr. and Rush D. Holt and state Speaker Sheila Oliver.
“Obviously Booker may be seen as having a real leg up simply because he is so much better known statewide than the other candidates,” Redlawsk said. “But anyone who tells you right now that they know who is going to show up is just crazy.”
As his campaign was filing its petition on June 10 with more than 8,000 signatures — eight times the number needed, and by far the most among the Democrats running — Booker was on a two-day fundraising trip to California. He’ll need that cash on tap not only to run ads in the New York and Philadelphia media markets, but also to afford a top-notch campaign team that can assure his voters get to the polls.
Booker quickly signed up top New Jersey media firm Message & Media and the lead pollster for President Barack Obama’s campaigns, Benenson Strategy Group. On June 14, Booker announced the hiring of fledgling grass-roots organizing firm 270 Strategies, which is led by two top operatives from the Obama campaign: Mitch Stewart and Jeremy Bird.
“We are going to be moving quickly to build the kind of grass-roots infrastructure that’s necessary to make sure that we identify and then mobilize our supporters,” Booker spokesman Kevin Griffis told CQ Roll Call.
In the two-month sprint to the Aug. 13 primary, it’s unclear just yet what a path to victory would look like for any of the other three candidates. Redlawsk said there is an “anti-Booker vote out there,” but it will be split among three candidates — yet another advantage for the Newark mayor.
Only Pallone, who had more than $3 million in the bank at the end of March, registered in double-digits in any of the polls — and he reached only 10 percent. But Booker’s greatest vulnerability may be that he does not have the same lengthy record of battling for other state and local Democrats, nor as many ties to the interest groups that play heavily in the party’s primaries.
Some groups could sit on their hands rather than campaign against Booker if they see him as the likely winner. But Pallone and the others will be counting on the loyalty they’ve built over years of legislative service.
“The congressman has spent the better part of the last decade traveling the state, working on behalf of other candidates, working in the trenches with the party to unite the party and get folks elected,” a source close to Pallone said. “His record is spotless when it comes to the issues that common, everyday Democrats care about.”
Holt, a rocket scientist and five-time Jeopardy champion who has represented central New Jersey in Congress since 1999, is no campaign battleground novice. He won a few tough races in his district before it was redrawn last cycle.
“Congressman Holt has a broad base of grass-roots support, and I think the easiest statistical way to point that out is he has raised four times as much from small-dollar donors as any other New Jersey Democrat in the House,” Holt spokesman Thomas Seay said.
“These are the kind of committed, progressive Democrats who will be at the polls in August, and they have a history of supporting him overwhelmingly.”
Oliver may be the greatest underdog. But the lone woman in the race has built up loyalties within the state party as well.
Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr., who has no plans yet to endorse, said he “ain’t going to forget” that Oliver went out on a limb to back him last year in his member-vs.-member primary against fellow Democratic Rep. Steven R. Rothman. But Pascrell, who called his colleagues “two good congressmen,” knows all four candidates and said they would “all be good senators.”
“I think Booker would have the edge right now because he’s better known,” Pascrell said last week, with Pallone standing nearby. “He is America’s mayor at this point — and I say that tongue-in-cheek.”
Party insiders also view Booker as less liberal on issues such as education, which is a point of contention sure to be mentioned in any forthcoming debates or attack ads.
“Frank Pallone has a lot of support among party officials and interest groups like labor and environment and educational leaders, as does Rush Holt,” said state Sen. Raymond Lesniak, who is backing Booker. “But to me, that’s not going to be nearly enough to overcome Cory Booker’s huge name identification, favorability lead and strength in minority communities across the state.”