New Jersey votes in special election

Newark Mayor Cory Booker greets a supporter after casting his vote in a special U.S. Senate election Wednesday. Booker, a Democrat, was leading in pre-election surveys over Republican Steve Lonegan. (John Moore / Getty Images / October 15, 2013)

Campaigning ended Wednesday as voters cast ballots in the special election to pick a new U.S. senator for New Jersey. But rather than serve as a fresh read on the feelings of an electorate tormented by the messy and combative budget mess in Washington, the closing days served up a bipartisan shoulder shrug.

Turnout was reported to be light, if steady, the former befitting a strangely-timed Wednesday election, just  a few weeks before the regularly scheduled statewide elections. (The date was chosen by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican running for reelection next month; the Senate seat was held by Democrat Frank Lautenberg until his death in June.)

Democrat and Newark mayor Cory Booker was the Senate frontrunner throughout, helped by outside parties like New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s political organization, which aired ads on Booker's behalf. Republican Steve Lonegan battled from behind, with tea party allies making verbal pitches for him but not tossing in the kind of cash that could have made the contest more competitive.

“New Jersey, the eyes of America are on you tomorrow,” former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin said Tuesday, as she solicited volunteers nationwide to call in to New Jersey to persuade voters to cast ballots.

Lonegan’s chances seemed limited to the combination of strong tea party turnout and a flatlining for Booker among New Jersey’s dominant Democratic voters, a circumstance made easier by the selection of the Wednesday election day.

A poll released Monday showed Booker with a comfortable 10-point lead, though the Monmouth University pollsters cautioned that “turnout continues to be a big question in this unprecedented situation: a mid-October Wednesday election held just three weeks before the regularly scheduled November election for governor, state legislature, and a variety of local offices.”

The poll showed that, as can happen in contentious contests, voters had come to agree with the negative arguments made by both sides.

Almost half of likely voters — 48% — said Booker was seeking office to fashion a place on the national stage, to 37% who said he was interested in serving New Jersey. (That was a central argument by Lonegan, who made much of Booker’s Hollywood connections and frequent travel.)

But more likely voters than not also  felt that Lonegan’s conservative views were out of step with the state, reflecting the thrust of Booker’s criticisms.

“Concerns about Cory Booker’s intentions to serve New Jersey continue to persist and his favorability ratings continue to drop. At the same time, voters clearly prefer Booker’s political views over Lonegan’s,” Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, said in a statement.

As election day neared, both candidates did what candidates do before special elections: try to maximize the turnout of their voters by any means possible.

“I am asking for your vote today in this pivotal race for #NJ & America,” Lonegan told supporters via Twitter.  “The polls close at 8P. Thank you for your support.” @lonegan

Booker received a blizzard of tweets from supporters noting that they had cast ballots for him. “Thank you! Please encourage others to do so,” he said.

Cathleen.Decker@latimes.com

Twitter: @cathleendecker