Cory Booker's Senate campaign has not gone according to plan.
The charismatic mayor of Newark opened up the race to replace the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D) with a commanding 30-point lead over Republican rival Steve Lonegan. That edge has since dwindled to as little as 12, according to a late September Quinnipiac poll, thanks to a "lackluster" campaign and a string of unflattering news.
With Booker's lead slimming, some have speculated his campaign is in need of a dramatic rescue, the kind Booker himself is famous for. In the latest bout of hand-wringing, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg is preparing to spend more than $1 million on TV ads boosting Booker and his "sputtering, unfocused" campaign, according to the New York Times' Michael Barbaro.
Yet while Booker could still pull a Coakley and blow it in the campaign's final week, he is not, at this point, in any danger of losing the race.
Booker's lead has diminished, but it is still a commanding one. A Monmouth University survey released last week had Booker up by 13 points — the same margin by which Lautenberg won re-election in 2008.
The TPM PollTracker average pegs Booker's lead, based on the weighted trends of various polls, at about 18 points.
That's despite National Review needling Booker for his so-called "imaginary friends," allegedly fake characters whom Booker has cited many times to dramatize his connection to Newark's downtrodden. And it's despite BuzzFeed posting supposedly bombshell Twitter messages between the unmarried Booker and an Oregon stripper.
Lonegan has been unable to capitalize more on those distractions because he's a far-right conservative in a deep blue state. Lonegan opposes abortion even in cases of rape and incest, and he's won Sarah Palin's endorsement, a development that should hurt more than it helps.
New Jersey's voters, meanwhile, haven't elected a Republican senator in 40 years. (A couple of Republican senators have served via appointment, though, including Sen. Jeffrey Chiesa, Gov. Chris Christie's (R) temporary fill-in for Lautenberg.) And President Obama won the state by a 17-point margin in 2012, indicating New Jersey is still very much Democratic territory.
Also bad for Lonegan's odds: There are signs the fallout from the government shutdown has begun to damage the Republican brand nationwide.
A Washington Post-ABC News poll Monday found 70 percent of Americans disapproved of how congressional Republicans have handled budget negotiations. And a PPP poll over the weekend showed Democrats with a chance to retake the House in 2014, specifically because the GOP's sliding poll numbers as a party threatened to drag down swing-district incumbents.
Booker laid off attacking Lonegan until last week to avoid boosting his opponent's low profile. With Booker finally unleashing a barrage of assaults — both in a new ad and in a televised debate — Lonegan's summer gains could recede over the next week.
With the election now nine days away, Booker remains on solid ground to move from Newark to Washington. He may not be the Democratic Party's first choice, but he should, barring an unforeseen, politically apocalyptic development, join them in Washington soon enough.
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