In Deep Blue New Jersey, A Tea Party Show Of Strength

New Jersey will choose a new U.S. Senator Wednesday. Pundits thought Newark Mayor Cory Booker would win it easily, but the Democratic Party's rising star is facing a tougher than expected challenge from Tea Party Republican Steve Lonegan — a sign of the Tea Party's growing stature in deep blue New Jersey.

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New Jersey voters head to the polls tomorrow to vote in a special election for U.S. Senate. The Democratic candidate is Newark Mayor Cory Booker, a rising star in his party. NPR profiled him last week. The Republican contender is Steve Lonegan, a conservative who supports the government shutdown. From member station WNYC, Janet Babin reports on how Lonegan is faring in a state with a traditionally moderate GOP.

JANET BABIN, BYLINE: Bergen County is just a short car ride from New York City, but it gets suburban pretty fast. And the recession hit hard here. This area is home to the New Jersey Tea Party Coalition, one of about a dozen similar groups that have cropped up across the state since 2008. I meet with coalition co-founder Michele Talamo and a handful of other members at a local park. Like most tea partiers, Talamo wants lower taxes, smaller government and has a visceral mistrust of the president.

MICHELE TALAMO: I became very anxious by the election of Barack Obama, coming into office and the transition, and then the stimulus that came into being.

BABIN: Another member, Ron Ellis(ph), explains why he's worried about the erosion of personal freedom.

RON ELLIS: Have you ever ridden in the back of a pick-up truck?

BABIN: Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

ELLIS: Yeah? Well, you know, you're one of the few. You can't do that anymore because the government has gotten bigger and bigger and is telling us everything that we can and cannot do.

BABIN: These Tea Party members say they're supporting Steve Lonegan in New Jersey's special U.S. Senate election. And when the conservative Republican ran for governor of New Jersey against Chris Christie four and a half years ago, he sounded very much like the Tea Partier. Here's Lonegan at a gubernatorial campaign event, talking about the direction he believes the country was moving in.

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STEVE LONEGAN: It's called socialism and a shift from our American way of life to a European socialism.

BABIN: But fast forward to the current campaign for U.S. Senate, and Lonegan is shying away from any formal association with the Tea Party. This has been hard to do, given that he recently headed up a group favored by the Tea Party. Professor Brigid Callahan Harrison at Montclair State University says Lonegan's solid, conservative credentials are a double-edge sword.

BRIGID CALLAHAN HARRISON: That background in the Tea Party in some ways is hurting him with more moderate Republicans.

BABIN: It also may be what's helping him. The race was predicted to be a blowout win for Democrat Cory Booker. And with a 10-point lead in one of the most recent polls, those predictions will likely come true. But Lonegan has been cutting down on Booker's big lead these past few days. Patrick Murray is director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute.

PATRICK MURRAY: Most voters say that Cory Booker's views are in line with the state of New Jersey, whereas Steve Lonegan's are not. But it's the sense that the Garden State voters feel that their vote may have been taken for granted.

BABIN: Murray says New Jersey voters perceive Booker as a candidate who craves the national spotlight, and Lonegan has taken advantage of that weakness. At a campaign even in Newark last month, Lonegan said he's bringing the GOP together.

LONEGAN: We have pro-gun support and not so pro-gun Republicans. We have pro-life Republicans, not so pro-life Republicans.

BABIN: Professor Callahan Harrison at Montclair State says Lonegan deserves credit for making the race competitive.

HARRISON: As Lonegan's numbers in the polls increase, it then signals other voters that maybe this guy actually has a shot and it's OK to say that you're going to support him.

BABIN: Despite the current groundswell, Lonegan may not be able to overcome the math. It's been 40 years since New Jerseyans have elected a GOP senator. But what better time for conservatives to throw a hail Mary pass than a Wednesday, in the middle of October, with turnout expected to hit a record low. For NPR News, I'm Janet Babin.

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