While Democrats have a crowded primary for New Jersey’s open seat in the U.S. Senate, the Republicans already have a presumptive nominee — and he’s kind of a clown.
Meet Steve Lonegan, who served until April as director of the New Jersey chapter of the tea party group Americans for Prosperity. Lonegan was a three-term mayor of Bogota, a town of 8,000 people in Bergen County. And he’s a longtime party gadfly, having twice unsuccessfully sought the Republican nomination for Goveror and also lost races for Congress and state Senate.
Lonegan is 30 points behind Newark Mayor Cory Booker, the most likely Democratic nominee, in the first poll of the race. And Lonegan’s tendency to alienate voters make him unlikely to improve that margin much.
Lonegan’s website has a banner that says “conservative Republican victory” and touts his intention to “fight Obama’s agenda in the U.S. Senate.” That sort of message works in Texas, but President Obama has a 12-point net-positive job approval rating in New Jersey. It’s the sort of place where hugging the president is often a sound political move even (or especially) if you are a Republican.
In 2009, Lonegan ran for governor on a plan to scrap New Jersey’s income tax code and replace it with a flat 2.9 per cent tax on “every dollar earned.” That would have meant big tax cuts at the top, paid for by tax increases on middle-income and poor families; at the time, you typically had to be making more than $150,000 a year to be paying an effective rate over 2.9 per cent in New Jersey.
Lonegan got national press as mayor for his campaign demanding that CBS Outdoor take down a Spanish-language McDonald’s billboard in his town. Lonegan wrote: “McDonald’s should realise that in promulgating bilingualism, they are empowering the left wing that sees bilingualism as one more arrow to the heart of our democracy.” He also introduced a resolution to make English the official language of Bogota.
And when Lonegan wanted to announce a proposal to end all state programs using race as a criterion for eligibility, he decided the best place to do it was on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in Newark on Martin Luther King Day, reports the Newark Star-Ledger.
Lonegan is going to be an embarrassing candidate for the Republican party. So how is he becoming the nominee? Because while an unfiltered, archconservative Republican like Lonegan can’t win a Senate race, neither can the moderates that the party usually nominates.
The last Republican to win a Senate race in New Jersey was Clifford Case, a moderate, in 1972. New Jersey is a blue state and it wants Democrats in the senate.
That said, moderate Republicans have often come tantalizingly close. They came within three points of victory in the 1990 and 2000 Senate races. Doug Forrester likely would have won in 2002 if embattled Democratic Senator Robert Torricelli had not withdrawn at the last minute. But statewide campaigns in New Jersey are expensive and after getting burned so many times, it’s no surprise that moderate state senators like Tom Kean Jr. and Joe Kyrillos — losing GOP senate nominees from 2006 and 2012 — took a pass on this race.
Plus, these candidates might have lost to Lonegan in a primary. Like everywhere else, conservatives in New Jersey insist that the party keeps losing because it doesn’t nominate the true conservatives the electorate really wants. Lonegan took more than 40 per cent of the vote running to Chris Christie’s right in the 2009 gubernatorial primary.
Of course, the claim that what New Jerseyans want is a “true conservative” is nonsense. The last time conservatives got their way on a statewide nomination in New Jersey was 2001, when Jersey City Mayor Bret Schundler beat the establishment Republican candidate for the gubernatorial nomination. Schundler got creamed, losing the general election by 15 points.
And in 1978, conservatives deprived the Republican party of its last New Jersey Senate seat by denying renomination to then-Senator Case. The conservative who beat him in the primary, Jeffrey Bell, lost the general election to Bill Bradley by 12 points, even though 1978 was a good year for Republican senate candidates nationally. The only Republican who ever came close to beating Bradley was Christie Whitman, a moderate.
To the extent New Jersey voters ever like Republican candidates, they like them like Chris Christie: protective of taxpayer interests and resistant to the upward rise of New Jersey’s sky-high taxes, but pragmatic and willing to make compromises with Democrats. That’s not Steve Lonegan. But at least his crushing defeat will provide a useful reminder that lurching farther away from the median voter is not the way to improve your party’s brand.
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