NEWARK -- Democratic Newark Mayor Cory Booker and conservative Republican Steve Lonegan dominated their Senate primary contests Tuesday, each easily winning and setting up a clash of headline-grabbing candidates with sharply different views.
The Associated Press called the race for each favorite less than an hour after polls closed. As of 8:40 Booker had 57 percent of the vote in a four-way Democratic primary. Lonegan had 81 percent of the Republican vote against one opponent.
Booker, liberal on social issues and an advocate for poor cities, defeated three established Democrats in his party's primary, moving him one step closer to formally taking his national profile into national politics.
For Booker, the win, which included topping two well-funded Congressmen, Rush Holt and Frank Pallone, and Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver, may have been his biggest hurdle as he attempts to move from long-beleaguered Newark to Capitol Hill. Given New Jersey's voting history and the state's liberal bent, Booker enters the general election as a huge favorite.
Booker stood on an outdoor stage after the night ended, an American flag behind him, playing music and symbols of Newark's downtown progress to either side. On his right was a recently opened Dinosaur Bar-B-Que topped by "luxury loft" apartments. On his left was the glass facade of the New Jersey Devils' home, the Prudential Center (a project Booker criticized when it was championed by his predecessor and one-time nemesis, Sharpe James).
If he wins the Oct. 16 contest, Booker would be the ninth ever African-American Senator, and the fourth popularly elected.
Lonegan, a proud, right-wing firebrand and former mayor of Bogota, a small borough in Bergen County, easily beat phsyician Alieta Eck, who had never run for office before. After twice losing gubernatorial primaries, he'll finally have the chance to test his staunchly conservative message in a statewide general election.
Their victories in the odd late-summer primary, on a day when downpours swamped parts of the state, came amid reports of anemic voter turnout.
After a short primary campaign, the Lonegan and Booker will run a similarly brief sprint to the special general election. Gov. Christie set the unusual election dates in early June after longtime Democratic Sen. Frank Lautenberg died in office.
Booker is a rising Democratic star, often mentioned as a future presidential contender, with famous friends, wealthy supporters and a national following -- despite sharp criticisms from opponents who say his tangible achievements don't match his stature.
Along with Christie, he is one of New Jersey's two nationally-known politicians. Tuesday night, legendary rapper Q-Tip DJ'd Booker's victory party.
Lonegan is less glamorous. The former head of the New Jersey chapter of Americans for Prosperity, a Tea Party-aligned activist group, he has twice been rejected by GOP primary voters and became the favorite in this race when more moderate, establishment Republicans chose to sit out.
He poses a different type of challenge than the Democrats who ran against Booker. While Booker's party colleagues were slow to attack, Lonegan is always eager for confrontation and has a talent for political showmanship. His barbs could dent Booker's shining image.
Lonegan has a devoted conservative following, but will have to reach far beyond his own base.
New Jersey, with 700,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans, has not elected a Republican to the Senate since 1972. A Quinnipiac University poll released Aug. 7 gave Booker a 54-29 lead over Lonegan, and the Newark mayor had $4.1 million on hand as of late July, compared with $151,000 for Lonegan.
Both candidates enter the special general election match-up nursing wounds from the primary's final days.
Booker's financial dealings have come under scrutiny after revelations that an internet start-up he partially owns received generous funding from Silicon Valley moguls, potentially making the mayor wealthy, and that while in office he kept receiving income from his former law firm, even as the firm won contracts from Newark authorities that Booker had some influence over.
Lonegan, meanwhile, has been trying to tamp down criticism over a racially-charged Tweet his campaign sent out last week. Lonegan said there was no racist intent and has dismissed the issue as a "tempest in a teapot."
Booker's campaign and even Christie -- who is running as a moderate Republican -- have been critical. The tweet was quickly deleted but could still feed into Democrats' argument that Lonegan is too divisive to represent a multi-cultural state such as New Jersey.
The tweet was labelled as Booker's foreign policy debate prep notes and featured a map of Newark with parts labelled "West Africa, Guyana, Portugal, Brazil."
As summer wound down, few voters took notice of the race. Before Tuesday, the lowest turnout in a primary involving statewide office came in 2006, when just 6 percent of eligible voters participated in a primary for U.S. Senate and House races. Only 405,883 ballots were cast that year.
In the gubernatorial primary held two months ago, 9 percent of eligible voters -- about 480,500 -- cast ballots in a race that featured only token contests.
Thirty-nine people voted at the Hubert Street School in Secaucus as of 6 p.m. Tuesday, the lowest turnout Barbara Gonzales had seen in 13 years working the polls.
"Of course, the weather was very bad this morning," she said, as colleagues leafed through newspapers to pass the time.
Sunit Parikh, 45, of Secaucus, called Booker a "good, tough candidate" who he said was "turning around Newark with economic development."
"Hopefully that translates to the rest of New Jersey," he said.
Cherry Hill residents Raymond Horner Jr. and his wife, Dolores, voted for Lonegan.
"We feel that it's necessary we have a change in the federal government," he said.