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Now, Senator Booker

The Newark mayor sails to victory
/ Source: MSNBC TV

The Newark mayor sails to victory

Newark Mayor Cory Booker will soon be headed to Washington as the next New Jersey senator.

The Democratic nominee bested Republican Steve Lonegan in Wednesday’s special election to succeed the late Frank Lautenberg. With just over half of the vote in, the Associated Press called the race for Booker, who was leading 55%-44%. 

The high-profile mayor, who has touted his ability to bring people together while growing his own social media presence and popularity, will head to a polarized Washington where he’s certain to be a rising star within the Democratic Party and another outsized presence in D.C.

With his win, Booker becomes the first African-American elected to the Senate since Barack Obama--only the fourth popularly elected black senator since Reconstruction. (South Carolina's Tim Scott, a Republican, was named to fill the seat vacated by Jim DeMint.

After easily winning a four-way Democratic primary in August, Booker was expected to have a clear path to win the election. But some stumbles along the way and tightening poll numbers drew scrutiny to the race in its final days. While he was leading by 11 points when the race was called in his favor, early polls had shown him up by more than 20 points, but Booker's campaign had said they long expected that unrealistic lead to tighten. 

Booker was dinged late last month after it was revealed he had exchanged direct messages with an Oregon stripper. The mayor dismissed it, saying it was just part of his active social media life, and he hadn’t scrutinized her profile.

Booker has also faced lingering questions over his finances, including his stake in an internet video company and payouts he received from his former law firm, who got contracts with the city. And the validity of other anecdotes he’s used on the trail, including a story of a former drug dealer, “T-Bone,” he later befriended, have been called into question.

The contest between the two men was bitter. In debates and on the campaign trail, Lonegan took aim at Booker’s record in Newark, arguing that crime hadn’t dropped and the city hadn’t prospered as much as Booker liked to portray. In one exchange, Lonegan claimed there were  “bodies floating around of shooting victims” in the Passaic River during Booker’s tenure as mayor. Lonegan also jabbed at the mayor’s celebrity and said  Newark needed “a leader, not a tweeter.” Booker has more than a million Twitter followers.

But Booker returned fire with negative ads reminding voters of Lonegan's “extreme” social views. In debates, he repeatedly pointed to Lonegan’s anti-abortion and anti-gay marriage views and said he belonged with the "fringe Tea Party” that forced the government shutdown over defunding Obamacare. For good measure, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Political Action Committee stepped in to spend $1 million for ads in support of Booker.

Lonegan didn’t play the role of the New England Republican moderate who could have taken advantage of missteps and a tightening race. In the final weekend, he brought in Sarah Palin and conservative radio host Mark Levin to rally for him. And he had his own unflattering press reports to deal with too, after his campaign manager Rick Shaftan was dismissed after giving a profanity-laced interview that trashed Booker and questioned his sexuality. 

In lauding his win, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee didn't even wait until the race was officially called to put out a statement on his anticipated victory.

“Tonight’s election is a repudiation of the Tea Party’s reckless agenda and a Republican party that grants too much influence to people on the fringes," said DSCC Chairman Michael Bennet, just after the Senate voted to move forward on a proposal to reopen the government and raise the debt ceiling. The state's interim appointed senator, former Republican Attorney General Jeffrey Chiesa, also voted to move the bill forward.