GLASSBORO, N.J. (AP) – With one week to go before a special election for U.S. Senate, Democrat Cory Booker is betting that New Jersey voters will find Republican Steve Lonegan's support for the government shutdown and opposition to gay marriage too extreme.
New Jerseyans have not elected a Republican to U.S. Senate in more than 40 years. In the state, registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by 400,000.
Booker, the second term mayor of Newark, and Lonegan, the former state director of Americans for Prosperity, a group advocating for limited government and expanded personal liberties, squared off in the second of two debates on Wednesday. The first had fireworks; this one, televised on NBC affiliates in New York and Philadelphia, contained explosive comments.
In a discussion about rolling back government environmental regulations, Lonegan told Booker, “you may not be able to swim in that river, but it's probably because of all the bodies floating around from shooting victims in your city.''
A stunned Booker replied, "Oh, my God. Oh, my God.''
Lonegan defended the comment afterward, saying it illustrated the abundance of violent crime. Booker said it was insulting to people living in cities.
Earlier, Lonegan claimed that too much of the state's income and sales tax revenue "gets poured into a big black hole in Newark.''
Booker's campaign said the remark was racially tinged.
Booker maintains a comfortable lead in the race. However, after coasting through the Democratic primary, he has had to work harder in the general election campaign.
Lonegan has been relentless. He held a press conference on a Newark street corner where someone had just been killed to call attention to city violence. He rolled out a red carpet while Booker was in California raising money with Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. He showed up outside a derelict property Booker once owned to highlight its decrepit condition.
Booker has sought to portray his opponent as an extremist and ideologue, like the U.S. House Republicans who have shut down the government to postpone the health care overhaul law.
"Sendng him to Washington would be like pouring gasoline on a fire,'' Booker said Wednesday.
Lonegan supports the shutdown and said he admires politicians who are unafraid to "advocate for liberty,'' like Ted Cruz, Rand Paul and Marco Rubio.
Booker circulated a petition to end the shutdown and said politicians are sent to Washington "to work together and solve our problems.'' Asked to give Congress a grade, Booker gave it an F, while Lonegan awarded a B.
Lonegan also said he would not have accepted federal aid after Superstorm Sandy, unless Congress made corresponding spending cuts. Booker essentially called him a hypocrite, noting that Lonegan sought $500,000 in state aid while mayor of the Bergen County town of Bogota, and ultimately accepted $350,000. Lonegan said suburban towns pay far more in taxes than they get back.
The two also differ sharply on gay marriage, which the New Jersey Legislature approved, but Gov. Chris Christie vetoed, despite polls showing a majority of New Jerseyans support.
Booker supports gay marriage and Lonegan opposes it. On Wednesday, Lonegan went a step further, though, saying he had "mixed feelings'' about whether gay couples should be able to have children.