Democratic Newark Mayor Cory Booker and Republican Steve Lonegan sailed to victory Tuesday night in their respective primaries to face off in the special election for New Jersey’s Senate seat.
Booker, a rising star in the national Democratic Party, defeated three experienced politicians, U.S. Reps. Rush Holt and Frank Pallone, and state Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver, with about 75 percent of the vote.
Lonegan, the former mayor of Bogota, won handily with 80 percent of the vote over Franklin Township physician Alieta Eck, who had never run for office before, even though she received the support of some Tea Party organizations.
The candidates will face off in the Oct. 16 special election to serve the final 15 months of longtime Democratic Sen. Frank Lautenberg’s term after his death in June.
Booker ran with the support of New Jersey's Democratic establishment and celebrities from across the country. Oprah Winfrey joined him at a fundraiser, and Eva Longoria campaigned with him.
Booker is particularly known for his social media presence. He has 1.4 million followers on Twitter, which he uses to field complaints about local issues such as sinkholes and to dispense inspirational quotes.
Lonegan resigned from his job as New Jersey director of the conservative group Americans for Prosperity to run. He has twice sought his party's nomination for governor but lost both primaries. He has had success at leading campaigns to defeat statewide referendums, such as one to fund open-space preservation.
Lonegan spent much of his primary campaign going on the offensive against Booker.
He held a news conference to ridicule Booker's broad anti-childhood poverty plan and another at the scene of a homicide in Newark to question whether Booker has done much to reduce crime. He's also been to the New York headquarters of Waywire, a technology startup Booker co-founded, to criticize his role in it.
In a fiery victory speech in Secaucus on Tuesday night, Lonegan blasted Booker as a candidate "anointed by Hollywood" and the top choice of "Silicon Valley moguls" who want to make him California's third U.S. senator.
Lonegan said he would ignore pollsters and pundits and emphasize personal freedom and reducing the role of government and particularly push to repeal ObamaCare, which Booker supports.
"We know what we believe in," he said. "We're going to say what we believe, and when we go to Washington, D.C., we are going to do what we say."
Booker ran his primary campaign with a focus on his “conciliatory image,” styling himself as someone willing to work with political adversaries such as Republican N.J. Gov. Chris Christie.
Booker found himself defending working with Christie in debates during the primary season, once explaining he disagrees with the governor "90 percent of the time.”
Booker, who would be New Jersey's first black U.S. senator, said Tuesday night it was an honor to win the nomination and vowed to fight for women's rights, an increase in the minimum wage and gay marriage.
"If you want someone in Washington who will play by the same old rules, you should elect someone else," said.
Booker’s narrative as the son of some of the first black IBM executives, who played football at Stanford, won a Rhodes scholarship, received a law degree from Yale, and then moved into one of the toughest parts of Newark in an effort to revive the state's largest city has also helped him increase his notoriety across the country.
Although reviews of the second-term mayor are mixed in Newark, he has been able to leverage his power to help bring in hundreds of millions of dollars in grant money for the city, including a $100 million pledge from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.
He's also given 90 paid speeches across the country since 2008, collecting $1.3 million, nearly half of which he has donated to charity.
Lonegan is a familiar voice in New Jersey politics, blunt and conservative. He ran in and lost gubernatorial primaries in 2005 and 2009. He was a leader of successful opposition to ballot measures that would have raised a state sales tax and funded stem-cell research.
Like Booker, he grew up in suburban Bergen County, in Ridgefield Park, and played college football, at William Paterson.
The election is on a compressed schedule. The day after Lautenberg's death, Christie scheduled the primaries for Tuesday and a special election for Oct. 16, 20 days before the voting day on which he's seeking re-election.
The move drew criticism, with some opponents saying Christie was spending $12 million on an extra election so he could avoid being on the same ballot as Booker, a claim Christie denies.
The Associated Press contributed to this report