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U.S. Senator Cory Booker. Photo by Kevin Sanders for the New Jersey Globe

Mission Impossible: The search for a GOP Senate candidate vs. Booker

Bob Hugin spent $36 million against an embattled Democrat and still won just 44%

By David Wildstein, November 12 2018 12:38 pm

Republicans will have a nearly impossible time recruiting a candidate to run against U.S. Senator Cory Booker in 2020. New Jerseyans just re-elected a senator with upside-down approvals of 36%-52%. Booker’s approvals are at 58%-37%.

Their 2018 candidate, Bob Hugin spent $36 million of his own money and got clobbered. Hugin lost 53.4%-43.5%, a margin of 384,030 votes. In the end, Hugin finished around where other Republican Senate candidates.

Republicans have lost the last sixteen races for U.S. Senate in New Jersey and haven’t won since 1972; only Hawaii has gone longer. New Jersey now has 930,850 more Democrats than Republicans, and that number is growing. The registration gap is on a pace to exceed 1 million next year, and Democrats could surpass unaffiliated voters (aka independents) by 2020.

Sometimes parties look to a stalwart with some gravitas to go on the ticket to add some credibility. In 2008, some GOP leaders practically begged former Rep. Dick Zimmer to take on Frank Lautenberg, so they wouldn’t be embarrassed. Democrats did the same thing when they got former Rep. Paul Krebs to run against Clifford Case in 1972.

Still, a quixotic bid for U.S. Senate has its advantages.

In a race against Booker, where there is no expectation of winning, the bar is set lower. With no expectation of even coming close, a candidate gets to do things his or her own way. Because of Booker’s national profile, a challenger can raise a little bit of money off the coattails of a presidential campaign. (Earlier this month, Gov. Phil Murphy signed a bill that will allow Booker to run for president and re-election to the Senate simultaneously.)

And losing to Booker is not the worst thing. The senator is incredibly civil – he won’t beat up his opponent the way Bob Menendez savaged Hugin – and his focus will be on national politics in the fall of 2020 whether he wins the Democratic presidential nomination or not.

Booker’s 2020 challenger gets to make statewide connections unencumbered by the prospect of winning.

David Norcross was a 39-year-old former executive director of the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission when he challenged U.S. Senator Harrison Williams in 1976 and won 39% of the vote. His quixotic campaign paved the way for him to become Republican State Chairman in 1977, where he made national GOP connections that helped him become partner at a large Washington, D.C. law firm and general counsel of the Republican National Committee.

When Christine Todd Whitman challenged Bill Bradley in 1990, she was supposed to get destroyed. But Whitman held him to 50%-47% and that propelled her into the governorship three years later.

In 1984, Montclair Mayor Mary Mochary got 34% against Bradley. That got her a Reagan administration job working as counsel to the U.S. Secretary of State.

Way back in 1966, Warren Wilentz ran against Clifford Case and got 37% of the vote. But the statewide contacts and friendships he made as a sacrificial lamb helped him build an already powerful law firm.

The last time Booker ran, in 2014, New Jersey had a Republican governor and the GOP had a tough time finding someone to run.

Their candidate turned out to be 70-year-old Jeff Bell, a former Reagan campaign speechwriter who had slayed a giant in 1978 when he ousted four-term U.S. Senator Clifford Case in the Republican primary. But after losing that general election to Bill Bradley and then a GOP Senate primary to Millicent Fenwick in 1982, he moved to Virginia and didn’t return for 32 years.

Bell won the primary by 4,598 votes (29%-26%) over Richard Pezzullo. Brian Goldberg (25%) finished third, 1,864 votes behind Pezzullo. Murray Sabrin received 19% in his fourth place finish.

Right now, a short list of Republican candidates would include the usual suspects: Goldberg, who lost 75%-25% to Hugin in the 2018 primary; Pezzullo, who lost his ninth campaign last week with 37% against Frank Pallone; Nutley Commissioner Steve Rogers, an early Trump supporter who won 6% in the 2017 GOP gubernatorial primary; Joseph “Rudy” Rullo, who received 7% in the ’17 primary; and Tricia Flanagan, who ran as a “Make America Great Again” conservative against Hugin and Menendez and won .5% of the statewide vote.

Never count out former Bogota mayor Steve Lonegan, who won 44% against Booker in a 2013 special election.

If Republicans beg and plead for at least 30 seconds, they might be able to recruit Libertarian Murray Sabrin, a Ramapo College professor who has run statewide five times and got .7% in his Senate bid last week.

One other possibility is former Atlantic County freeholder Seth Grossman, who won 46% against Jeff Van Drew in the 2nd district. Grossman has run statewide before – he challenged Chris Christie in the 2013 Republican primary – and now has a national network of small dollar donors.

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