New Jersey picks a senator

Gee, that was quick. The ink is barely dry on a deal to reopen the United States government (it’s just passed the House of Representatives, 285 to 144) and already there’s an election being characterised as “a referendum on the partisan gridlock that has paralyzed Washington in recent weeks.”

Polls closed about two and a half hours ago in a by-election to fill one of New Jersey’s seats in the US Senate, vacated by the death of Frank Lautenberg in June. It pitted Democrat Cory Booker, the mayor of Newark, against Republican Steve Lonegan, a conservative who supported the shutdown.

If the last few weeks’ events in Washington were really the big issue, then New Jersey’s verdict on them is pretty unequivocal. Booker has won the seat comfortably; with 98% of precincts reporting he has 54.6% of the vote to Lonegan’s 44.4%, a margin of more than 130,000 votes. (Live results are available here.)

But having a Democrat win in New Jersey is no surprise. The state voted 58.4% for Barack Obama last November, and, with one exception, Democrats have consistently won by substantial margins in statewide races over recent years. No Republican presidential candidate has carried the state since George Bush senior in 1988.

Booker had led in the opinion polls throughout the campaign, and although his support apparently dipped slightly in early October there was never any serious thought that Lonegan would win. Certainly Lonegan wouldn’t have been helped by the shutdown and associated issues, but the basic pattern of the race was already set.

The one exception to the Democrats’ record is, of course, state governor Chris Christie, a Republican, who unseated Democrat incumbent Jon Corzine in 2009 (after first beating, as it happens, Steve Lonegan in the primary). But Christie won with less than half the vote in a three-cornered contest, and his record (including his favorable remarks about Obama last year) shows that he is well aware that he governs a fundamentally Democrat-leaning state.

In fact the reason this election was held on such an odd date – a Wednesday – is that it was the earliest possible date, and Christie wanted to put the maximum distance between it and the state election on 5 November, in which he is seeking re-election. (The by-election could easily have been held on the same date, saving a bucketload of money.)

Not that Christie’s re-election is in any doubt. Incumbency is powerful, and Christie’s popularity and reputation as a moderate have scared off stronger Democrat challengers (such as, for example, Cory Booker). But with his eye on the Republican presidential nomination in 2016, Christie wants a landslide victory to give him maximum credibility; a Senate race at the same time would have been an unwelcome complication.

The way things are going, Christie’s re-election bid (not to mention elections in Virginia and New York City on the same day) will probably also be seen as a “referendum” on the controversial tactics of the GOP in Washington. But just as with today’s result, the information it conveys about that will be very limited.


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