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Cory Booker Wins Democratic Senate Primary, Gears up to Make History in October

photo credit: Eduardo Munoz/Reuters/Landov

Now that he has dispatched with that matter of the New Jersey Democratic primary for the U.S. Senate, Newark Mayor Cory Booker has just one more detail to contend with—the October general election—before he can assume the post as New Jersey’s newest senator and the only elected African-American in that august body.

As expected, Booker destroyed the competition in the Democratic primary, winning nearly 60 percent of the vote, while his nearest challenger, Representative Frank Pallone Jr., who had received the endorsement of the family of the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg, won about 20 percent.

Representative Rush D. Holt received about 17 percent of the vote and state Assembly speaker, Sheila Y. Oliver, who spent just $25,000 on her run for office and had virtually stopped campaigning, garnered less than 5 percent.

Now Booker will run in the October special general election against Steven M. Lonegan, a former mayor of Bogota, N.J., and ex-candidate for governor, who easily won the state’s Republican primary yesterday. If he wins, Booker would make history as New Jersey‘s first African-American senator.

Lonegan told the New York Times that he planned to run a vigorous campaign against Booker that highlighted their deep ideological differences.

“I intend to run a line-in-the-sand campaign between a conservative and an extreme liberal,” he said. “The differences could not be clearer.”

But in a state that hasn’t elected a Republican senator in more than 40 years, the popular Newark mayor will surely coast to victory. The new senator will serve just the remaining 17 months of Lautenberg’s term, then will have to run for re-election in November 2014 to keep the seat.

Voter turnout in yesterday’s primary was projected to be more than 300,000—higher than expected for a primary election amid the August swelter.

Booker, who has established a national reputation for his heroics in Newark—rescuing a woman from a burning building, responding to a car crash victim, personally shoveling snow from a constituent’s driveway, living for a week on food stamps—used his celebrity to establish a formidable fundraising advantage in the race.

With friends like Oprah Winfrey coming to town to raise money for him, Booker—who at one point was romantically linked to Oprah’s BFF, Gayle King—spent at least $5 million on the primary compared to the combined $4 million spent by his two chief rivals, Pallone and Holt.

After a New York Times front page article on Booker’s financial interest in an Internet startup, there’s been an attempt to taint him with the stench of financial improprieties. But most observers don’t expect the money story to hurt the squeaky clean Yale-trained lawyer and Rhodes scholar.

After all, Booker is about to enter the U.S. Senate, the nation’s original millionaires’ club. A million dollors here or there garnered through relationships with wealthy friends is practically a requirement for Senate membership.

Newark historian Clement Price said Booker was a political force unlike any that city has ever seen.

“Newark has never had a political figure such as Mayor Booker,” Price, a professor at Rutgers University in Newark, told NPR. “He’s been enormously popular and has an ability to draw media attention to himself and to the city beyond anything I’ve ever seen.”

One of the benefits of that attention was Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s 2010 donation of $100 million to Newark schools.

Price said Booker also paid more attention to drug- and gun-related crime and moved Newark toward a “new urbanism — planning, greening, creating more spaces for kids to play.”

The real question is whether Booker’s outsized celebrity will hurt him or help him in the Senate—will it help him bring attention to his pet legislative issues, or will it engender jealousy among his colleagues and make them want him to fail.

There are two recent media stars whose careers in the Senate might serve as models for Booker—Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. While Clinton put her head down and put in the hours to make important connections and impress her colleagues with her commitment and work ethic while she served as New York senator, Obama spend just one term in the Senate and made few friends—but at the same time became an international political phenomenon.

Michael Murphy, a New Jersey Democrat and lobbyist who ran for governor in 1997, told NPR that Booker was more like former New Jersey Senator Bill Bradley.

“I don’t think people in New Jersey are moved whatsoever that he has an interest in a dot-com, or that he has relationships with Wall Street,” Murphy said this week. “He’s like Bill Bradley — both are pretty friendly with the finance folks, both have Ivy League educations, both were Rhodes scholars, and both had big personas prior to elevation to the Senate.”

People have been pointing to Booker as a future presidential candidate ever since he was a student at Yale Law School because of his enormous charisma and drive. Once he elevates to the Senate and becomes an even bigger player on the national stage, he will be one huge step closer to that biggest prize.

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