I’ve been following Cory Booker’s career for 10 years now, since he was beaten back by Sharpe James and his Home Team machine in his first bid for mayor of Newark, and I like to think I have a good read on him. Which is why I’ve been insisting for months that talk of a Booker bid for governor of New Jersey next year is one big smoke screen – that the ambitious Democrat is dangling the prospect of a race against Chris Christie in front of the press in order to attract attention, but that he’ll never go through with it.
But I’m starting to doubt myself, at least a little. Booker recently talked about his political future with Charlie Stile of the (Bergen County) Record, saying that he’ll decide soon whether to challenge Christie or mount a campaign for the U.S. Senate in 2014. (Booker’s second term as mayor expires in ’14 and he has plainly had enough of that job.)
The latter option might require him to challenge a Democratic incumbent, Frank Lautenberg, but polls shows that New Jersey Democrats want the 88-year-old Lautenberg to retire and would overwhelmingly favor Booker in a head-to-head matchup with him. The thinking is that Lautenberg, who initially left the Senate in 2000 when it appeared then-Gov. Christine Todd Whitman would run against him, would opt for retirement if Booker decides to oppose him. This is one of the many reasons that running for the Senate, and not governor, seems like the more logical option for Booker.
But the mayor also told Stile that he thinks Christie is vulnerable – that his approval rating, inflated by his response to Hurricane Sandy, will steadily fall as the state’s Democratic-friendly electorate focuses more on its ideological differences with him. “There might be affection and affinity for the governor for now,” Booker said, “but if New Jersey voters are voting on the issues, I think Christie is the underdog in this race.”
As political analysis goes, there’s a lot of wishful thinking in there. Sure, Christie’s support is going to fall over the next 11 months and New Jersey is a blue state, but he has an awful lot going for him too.
For one thing, his poll numbers were pretty good even before Sandy – enough that Democrats weren’t exactly lining up to challenge him then, either. He also has a knack for separating himself from some of the more unpopular aspects of national Republican culture. His praise of President Obama’s Sandy leadership is one example; so was his impassioned defense of a Muslim judge targeted by right-wing Islamophobes. Or take same-sex marriage. The issue polls well in New Jersey, Booker is an outspoken proponent, and Christie isn’t. But Christie has called for a statewide referendum and promised to honor the result – a position that is quite popular with voters (even gay marriage supporters) and that a leading Democratic voice for gay rights is now embracing too. Oh, and there are also the Democratic bosses who privately get along quite well with the governor, who quietly helped him in his 2009 campaign against Jon Corzine, and who wouldn’t mind seeing him reelected. Add this up and Christie really is a strong favorite for ’13.
Which is another reason why a Booker campaign doesn’t make much sense. The likelihood of a loss would be high, and the possibility of an embarrassing loss – one that might alter his image and complicate any future bid for office – would be real. So why, with all of the years of effort he’s put into attaining the broad statewide popularity and national reputation he now enjoys, would Booker risk it for such a long shot? Especially with a much more winnable Senate race on the calendar for 2014.
I’ve talked to a number of New Jersey Democrats and politics-watchers over the past few days, and they do have an answer to this question. (They also verified that Booker really has been doing the behind-the-scenes work of calling party leaders around the state and sounding out prospective staffers that a gubernatorial candidate should be doing. Of course, several noted that this work will be just as valuable if he runs in 2014 and skips next year’s race.)
Anyway, the rationale for a Booker ’13 campaign would go something like this: Democrats are desperate for a candidate at this point. Besides Booker, none of their prospects have statewide name recognition, none can raise anything like the money Booker can, and none have the potential to immediately unite the state’s frequently divided North and South Democratic factions. There is real fear among Democrats that a non-Booker nominee would lose to Christie by a large enough margin that it would threaten the Democrats’ hold on the state Senate, and maybe even the state Assembly. So by running, Booker would be doing his party a huge favor. Even in defeat, he’d probably do well enough to shore up down-ballot Democratic candidates. Party leaders and activists would be grateful for that. And there’s always the possibility that he’d, you know, win.
So what would that get Booker, besides gratitude? Probably the governorship, in 2017. A reelected Christie would be term-limited out then, and Booker would be able to spend the four years between the two campaigns maintaining his visibility (he could be a regular on New York-based cable shows and spend the rest of his time making the rounds in the Garden State) and shoring up support within the party. If he were to lose to Christie by a respectable margin – 52 to 48 percent, say – he’d probably be set up to win the ’17 nomination without serious opposition. Democrats are quick to note that there’s an established pattern in New Jersey politics of candidates losing initial statewide bids but emerging well-positioned for follow-up campaigns. Former Govs. Whitman, Jim McGreevey, Jim Florio and Tom Kean all followed this path.
This might be a more attractive option than a Senate race. For one thing, Booker might find more allure in holding the country’s most powerful governorship than in serving as a newcomer in the world’s most deliberative body. Plus, the example of the current president aside, statehouses have tended to offer better launching pads for White House campaigns than Senate seats. Plus, as Jack Bohrer, a knowledgeable Jersey politics observer, noted on Monday, there’s an aspect of Booker’s personality that seems to delight in taking the perceived harder path.
My confidence that Booker won’t run in ’13 has been based on an assumption that a defeat – followed by several years out of politics – would be too destructive to his career to warrant the risk. And, as I mentioned above, there could be something to this, if he were to lose to Christie by a lopsided margin. But if the outcome is close, there’s really no reason Booker would be hurt by staying on the sidelines in 2015 and 2016 – especially with all of the free airtime he’d get as a cable news guest (or maybe host?). It might be preferable to sitting in the Senate. And if he were to win the governorship in ’17, he’d be on track for national consideration in 2020 – just as he would be if he won a Senate seat in ’14.
So yes, even though the odds of winning aren’t good, there’s a good case to be made for Booker running next year. I wouldn’t say I’m fully buying it yet, and I’d still bet that he’ll end up taking a pass. But I’m not as sure of it now as I have been for the past few months.