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N.J. Candidates Press On as Atypical Election Day Nears

N.J. Candidates Press On as Atypical Election Day Nears

By Scott Conroy - October 15, 2013

TOMS RIVER, N.J. -- Angie Fratianni, a retiree from Bayville, has been volunteering for Republican candidates in New Jersey for decades. Whether it's stuffing envelopes or trying to persuade undecided voters to come around, the drill is essentially the same for the affable octogenarian.

In this fall’s special U.S. Senate election, however, Fratianni has had to do things a little bit differently when making her phone calls.

“We don’t tell them just to go out and vote. We say, ‘I hope you realize that there is another election,’” she explained during her Monday shift at the Ocean County Republican Party headquarters. “You know what they say? They say, ‘Oh, I thought it was Tuesday’ because it’s usually automatic that Tuesday is Election Day.”

For Democrat Cory Booker and Republican Steve Lonegan, one of the most pressing challenges in their abbreviated campaign is to drill into the heads of their supporters that this time the election takes place on a Wednesday in October, rather than a Tuesday in November.

And with just two days until polls open, both candidates are focused on drumming up interest in a contest that has at times gotten short shrift from the media compared with the turmoil in Washington.

When Booker, the heavy favorite, pulled into the Democratic field office in the town of Edison on Monday morning to deliver a pep talk to his volunteers, he arrived on a campaign bus that advertised critical logistical information in block letters almost as large as his visage emblazoned upon its windows: “Wednesday, Oct. 16. Polls open 6 a.m. to 8 p.m.”

“This is not your regular election cycle,” Booker told a full house of local officials and supporters. “We have a lot of work to do to wake people up.”

As he did during both of their televised debates, the charismatic mayor of Newark accused Lonegan, a Tea Party favorite, of being out of touch with Democratic-leaning New Jersey.

But Booker also emphasized repeatedly the non-ideological approach he’s vowing to bring to Washington.

“This is not an election between a Republican and a Democrat,” he said. “This is an election between a Tea Party leader and a guy who’s brought people together -- me -- who’s gotten things done.”

Unlike his opponent, Lonegan has made no attempt to shift to the political center. Instead, the former mayor of the Bogota borough has sought to highlight his conservative credentials at every turn in the race. On Saturday, for instance, he rallied grassroots supporters at a motor speedway where he was joined by Sarah Palin and conservative radio host Mark Levin.

And after greeting volunteers here in Toms River on Monday, the Republican accused Booker of being “a fake” and “a made-up candidate,” and sought to tie his opponent to the Obama administration, part of an effort to rally his base.

“In a couple of days, New Jersey, the focal point of the country, is going to be casting a vote,” he said. “It’s a referendum on everything Barack Obama is doing to our country.”

Lonegan also has not downplayed his campaign’s calculation that his best chance to pull off an upset is if most voters stay home on Wednesday.

In a fundraising email that he blasted out on Sunday, he asserted that his campaign’s internal poll numbers have him within three points of Booker -- an assessment apparently rooted in the presumption of an exceedingly low turnout.

“VERY few people will turn out to vote in this usually blue state, and that's given us a unique opportunity here,” Lonegan wrote. “You see, if only half the people who voted for Mitt Romney in November 2012 show up and vote for me Wednesday, I’m going to win going away.”

Though special elections are notoriously difficult to forecast, the latest RealClearPolitics polling average offers a far less sanguine snapshot of his chances, as it shows Booker ahead by 12.2 percentage points.

Most recent polls find the race to have narrowed somewhat since last month, and a Monmouth University poll released Monday had Booker’s lead at 10 points.

But a Rutgers-Eagleton poll also released Monday showed Booker with a commanding 22-point advantage (58 percent to 36 percent) among likely voters.

Rutgers pollster David Redlawsk told RCP that he was surprised by the size of that margin, which he attributed largely to the Democrat’s huge advantage with women (67 percent to 27 percent) and a shift to Booker’s camp among independents who watched the debates.

If turnout on Wednesday approaches anywhere near the 40 percent threshold that the Rutgers survey suggests it might, Lonegan’s chances of pulling off an epic upset appear to be almost nil.

But the Republican’s strategy of running far to the right of the state’s electorate may have offered his only hope in what is an exceedingly challenging race for him.

“I actually think it was the right move for him because it’s the move that got him attention,” Redlawsk said. “He’s running with no money, relatively speaking. He needed the media to pay attention. If he tried to move to the center, it wouldn’t have been as interesting as a story as Steve Lonegan being who Steve Lonegan is.”

Despite his calls for Democratic and Republican unity, Booker knows better than anyone that he enjoys the ideological high ground in a state where President Obama defeated Mitt Romney by 17 percentage points in last year’s presidential race.

As much as Lonegan has emphasized that Republicans in Washington should “hold the line” on compromising with Democrats, even at the expense of the continued closure of the federal government, Booker has been just as eager to highlight his frustration with the two-week-old shutdown.

“When you turn on CNN or MSNBC, the whole country will be watching New Jersey because they’re going to want to know what we had to say about this Tea Party vs. working-together party -- what we had to say about government shutdown,” Booker told his supporters. “And what I want you to answer with your hard work and sweat is that we’re not about shutting down government. We’re about starting it up.” 

Scott Conroy is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at sconroy@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @RealClearScott.

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