Mayor Booker, who in recent surveys has held a large double-digit advantage over his nearest party rival, is then expected to face off against former Bogota, N.J., mayor Steve Lonegan, who is favored to win the Republican contest, also being held Tuesday. The special election to fill the seat vacated by Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D), who died in June, will be Oct. 16.
Whoever wins in October will have to run again next year for a full term.
Much as the current occupant of the White House once was, the Oxford-educated and social media-adept Booker is often asked about his presidential aspirations.
So what do you need to know about the contest and about Booker, who is young, telegenic, and has celebrity friends (actress Eva Longoria stumped for him Monday)? Is he the party’s flavor of the month, or might he have a national future?
Three items to consider when assessing Booker’s longer-term potential:
No fans in the Lautenbergs
If Booker wins, he doesn’t do it with the Lautenberg family’s seal of approval.
Deference to Senator Lautenberg was not foremost on Booker’s mind as he plotted his political future. While Lautenberg was alive, Booker, who has served as mayor since 2006, announced he was exploring a primary bid. The news prompted the senior senator, who hadn’t yet made clear his intention to run or retire, to suggest one form of punishment.
"I have four children; I love each one of them," Lautenberg told The Philadelphia Inquirer. "I can't tell you that one of them wasn't occasionally disrespectful, so I gave them a spanking and everything was OK."
This summer, the Lautenberg family issued a statement endorsing one of Booker’s Democratic primary rivals, Rep. Frank Pallone (D).
“Frank Lautenberg followed three fundamental principles as New Jersey’s U.S. Senator: stay true to his progressive values, put New Jersey first, and be a workhorse, not a show horse," the Lautenberg family said in a statement backing Representative Pallone.
Now, intraparty sour grapes don’t typically register for voters as they weigh which candidate to support. And there are plenty of politicians in both parties who decline to politely wait their turn before launching bids (again, President Obama comes to mind). But Booker’s maneuvering does reflect something of his ability to play nice, or not. And the Senate is a place where those with long futures learn to build allegiances and be good colleagues, both within their own party and across the aisle.
But perhaps Booker wouldn’t be interested in a long tenure in the Senate. Consider Sen. Ted Cruz, the freshman Republican from Texas. He has been reprimanded by his own party leaders for not playing by the chamber’s rules and for lacking decorum. And yet, he’s well on his way to launching a 2016 White House campaign.
Celebrity boosters, or celebrity pol?
Booker has long cultivated Hollywood figures – for the shine that famous folks can bring to his campaigns and causes, and for their donations.
Ms. Longoria, Russell Simmons, Ivanka Trump, and others are tweeting their encouragement to Booker as voters go to the polls Tuesday to choose among him, Pallone, Rep. Rush Holt (D), and state Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D).
Booker has 1.4 million Twitter followers. The city of Newark has approximately 277,000 residents.
Oprah Winfrey hosted a fundraiser for Booker, and he has been seen squiring her best friend, CBS’s Gayle King, around New York. Director Steven Spielberg and actress Jennifer Garner, among other Page Six names, have also given to Booker’s campaign.
Some see Booker’s schmoozing with notables as a negative, a sign of his ambition over his concern for New Jersey residents.
"I asked him, Cory, do you want to run for president?" Longoria said as she introduced him Monday night. "And he said, 'Eva, I want to change the world, and I will do that with whatever position I hold.' "
But remember that knock during the 2008 campaign against Mr. Obama – that he was the world’s biggest celebrity but not much of a leader? How did that ultimately go over?
What kind of senator would he be?
Opinions about Booker’s abilities run the gamut.
The New York Times endorsed him over the other three Democratic contenders because he “will be able to use his political star status to fight for the neglected, the powerless, people who are working and people who need to work in New Jersey and nationally.”
The paper’s editorial board wrote, “Ambitions are easy to come by, but Mr. Booker doesn’t just talk about helping the helpless. He does it. He would bring a sense of reality and some street-level experience to a Senate that often seems disembodied from the whole planet.”
Booker has lived in some of Newark’s most run-down areas. He rescued a woman from a blaze before the fire department arrived on the scene. He solicited a $100 million matching grant for city schools from Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg. And by many accounts, he and Gov. Chris Christie (R), no stranger himself to the public-relations game, have worked well together.
But Salon’s Alex Pareene in a piece titled, “Don’t vote for Cory Booker today: He will be an awful senator,” suggests otherwise. Aspiring to be a Democratic version of Senator Cruz is not a good thing, Mr. Pareene writes. Not for the Senate and not for New Jersey residents.
Sure, he’s “personable” and “charming,” but Booker represents "the charity of the benevolent elite,” he writes.
“[H]e’s also an avatar of the wealthy elite, a camera hog, and a political cipher who has never once proposed anything to address the structural causes of the problems he claims to care so deeply about,” Pareene says.
These knocks are not new ones for politicians in the modern era, especially those who have built their careers in an information age that requires cyber savvy. When the votes are counted, if Booker is tapped to replace Lautenberg, he’ll have much to prove.