Newark Mayor Cory Booker moved a step closer to Senate stardom Tuesday with a celebrity-powered win over three other New Jersey Democrats seeking to fill the seat of the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg.
With only 7 percent of the vote counted in the state's Democratic primary, Booker already had more than twice as many votes as his closest competitor, 13-term Rep. Frank Pallone, and the Associated Press declared Booker the winner. Booker earned the right to take on Republican Steve Lonegan in a special Senate election set for Oct. 16. Lonegan, a former mayor of Bogota, N.J., trounced physician Alieta Eck in the GOP primary Tuesday.
Booker, described by the popular website Vice.com as "one of the hippest, most tech-savvy politicians in the country," will be heavily favored to take the place of Lautenberg, who died June 3 at age 89 with 19 months left in his fifth Senate term.
Booker's decisive primary win over Pallone, Rep. Rush Holt, and state Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver came as many New Jersey residents were vacationing at the shore and thinking more about sunscreen than politics. Those stuck at home were treated to a race that featured stump speeches for Booker by Desperate Housewives star Eva Longoria and a glitzy fundraiser hosted by Oprah Winfrey, who has dubbed Booker "the rock star mayor."
Booker, 44, is such an imposing political figure that New Jersey's Republican Gov. Chris Christie, a rising star in his own party, scheduled the special Senate election for October, rather than have it coincide with the gubernatorial election in November, to avoid being on the same ballot with the popular Newark mayor.
Since first winning the mayor's office in 2006, Booker has gained a national reputation as a Democratic superstar. He is credited with bringing $1 billion worth of business development to Newark and persuaded Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg to donate $100 million to the city's schools. On the side, Booker has rescued a woman from a burning building, chased down a mugger near City Hall, housed victims of Hurricane Sandy in his residence, and built a Twitter following bigger than another famous son of New Jersey, rock star Bruce Springsteen.
Booker's victory in Tuesday's primary was a crushing blow for Pallone, who has been eyeing the Senate for years. He was a candidate for the seat vacated by Democratic Sen. Jon Corzine in 2006 before bowing out in favor of appointed Sen. Robert Menendez; this year, anticipating that Lautenberg would not seek reelection next year, Pallone had raised $4 million by the spring for a 2014 Senate race. That remains a possibility, of course, but it appears Pallone would have to face Booker again — this time as an incumbent — if both decide to run for a full term in the Senate next year.