Cory Booker Wins Senate Primary Easily, Despite Criticism

Moderation seems the unavoidable tax for African-American Democratic candidates looking to win statewide offices in states like New Jersey.

By Brentin Mock Aug 14, 2013

The people have spoken in New Jersey — at least the Democrats have — and Newark Mayor Cory Booker is the winner of the special primary election to replace deceased Sen. Frank Lautenberg. While criticisms of 44-year-old Booker as a mayor and as a candidate are plentiful, moderation seems the unavoidable tax for African-American candidates looking to win statewide offices in states like New Jersey. If Booker wins the general election, he will be the first African American candidate to represent New Jersey in the U.S. Senate, the sixth African American in the nation’s history elected to the U.S. Senate, and only the fourth popularly elected (two Senators from Mississippi, Hiram Rhodes Revels and Blanche Kelso Bruce, were elected to the U.S. Senate by the state senate). 

Also, New Jersey will be the only state with people of color serving as both of its representatives in the U.S. Senate — and the first state in history to do so (other than Hawaii, where people of color are the majority), writes political columnist Mike Kelly. The other senator is Robert Menendez, a Cuban-American Democrat. 

The fact that Booker has such huge support in New Jersey — his closest opponent Rep. Frank Pallone brought in just over 20 percent of the votes to Booker’s 60-plus percent — is no small feat, even with New Jersey’s strong Democratic lean. The state is still run by a Republican governor, Chris Christie, and a popular one at that. And Mitt Romney won over 40 percent of New Jersey voters last November (though Obama won the largest share of votes for a Democratic candidate in the state since 1964). But the state has never elected an African American to a statewide office. Only 14.7 percent of the population is African American compared to a 73.8 percent white population. Latino Americans make up 18.5 percent of the state.

This means that Booker needed a broad, multi-racial pool of voters to win the special election against two of his white primary opponents, and will need the same to defeat his Republican opponent Steve Lonegan.

He will also need money. While Booker has drawn much controversy for reeling in millions from Facebook and other Silicon Valley investors, having an outsized celebrity profile, and recently skipping NAACP events to raise money with non-New Jersey constituents like Oprah Winfrey, the stakes are certainly high enough in U.S. Senate races for such political maneuvering. Failing to focus on black communities and courting the Hollywood crowd are the same criticisms that were filed against Barack Obama as he became the first black president of the United States. African-American Democratic candidates for statewide offices have either had to opt for political moderation that angers African-American and progressive constituencies, or run from the far right as Republicans, like former U.S. Rep. Allen West in Florida. 

Lonegan, the legally blind, climate change-denying, anti-immigrant, Koch Brothers-funded Republican candidate has promised Booker a "street fight." But all that money raised by Oprah and other Silicon Valley millionaires has already come in handy for Booker, who is already in the general election race, as rapper Q-Tip said while DJing Booker’s party last night, "waaaayyy ahead."  

Booker’s primary win comes on the eve of the sentencing of former U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. — son of civil rights activist Jesse Jackson Sr. and once largely popular black congressman with a promising future — who was given two-and-a-half years in prison for misspending campaign funds.