Rebovich Institute Director Surprised By High Turnout in U.S. Senate Democratic Primary

The special U.S. Senate primary is over, but the general election is just about two months away. The Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics Director Ben Dworkin told NJ Today Managing Editor Mike Schneider that the biggest surprise in the primary was the turnout, which was higher than expected, especially on the Democratic side. He predicts the race for U.S. Senate and the race for governor will be linked during the campaign process.

Dworkin said more Democrats went to the polls than in a typical primary. “On the Democratic side, a typical June primary for the Democrats, you see about 200,000 voters. In this case, with a special election in August, short campaign, most people expected 150,000, 175,000 people to come out. Three hundred fifty thousand people voted. It was huge,” he said.

Part of the reason for the strong turnout, according to Dworkin, was the personalities involved, particularly Cory Booker. He said the win was a huge victory for Booker all across the state. “He’s a major league rock star personality and he’s liked by a lot of people. And so many people, this was the first time they got a chance to vote for him,” he said. “But more than that, I think what a lot of observers discovered was that there is a real hard core base of self-motivated Democratic voters out there. And it’s larger than the number that we used to think.”

On the Republican side, Dworkin said the race wasn’t deemed competitive, though he was surprised Alieta Eck got as many votes as she did, especially since she was the newcomer compared to Steve Lonegan who has run statewide previously.

Eck was endorsed by a tea party group and conservative group. Dworkin said he doesn’t believe the endorsements mean Lonegan has an issue with the right wing section of the party. “It’s hard to get further to the right on Steve Lonegan even though Dr. Eck tried to,” he said. “No, I don’t think that’s an issue. Not everyone’s gonna love you.”

The governor’s race and Senate race will likely be tied together, with the Buono campaign already linking Christie and Lonegan. Dworkin said that is to be expected. “The Buono campaign is gonna take advantage of the fact that you have a very popular governor, Chris Christie, and they’re gonna try to tie him to the not nearly as popular Tea Party as represented by Steve Lonegan, who literally has been the top Tea Party organizer in the state of New Jersey,” Dworkin said.

Lonegan ran against Christie for governor in the past. Because Christie is focused on his own reelection campaign, Dworkin said he won’t likely be offering Lonegan a lot of support. “So financially, Lonegan’s gonna reach out to the national Tea Party network that’s out there in order to get financial support,” Dworkin said. “But where the Democrats are gonna attack them, or what I would expect them to do, is to tie this Lonegan/Christie ticket together, to try and get the governor to either distance himself or accept the more extreme positions of both Lonegan and the national Tea Party.”

The tactic may be a way for Buono to boost her candidacy. “From the Buono campaign, there haven’t been a lot of things that have gotten a lot of traction. She’s still significantly behind. So this is an opportunity to make some inroads and we’ll have to see if any of it takes,” Dworkin said.