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The Newark mayor becomes the second African-American in the Senate
October 16, 20138:45PM ETUpdated 11:30PM ET
Democrat Cory Booker, the mayor of Newark, won the U.S. Senate election in New Jersey on Wednesday, handily defeating Republican opponent Steve Lonegan, a former small-town New Jersey mayor, with 55 percent of the vote, according to polls.
Booker becomes the second African-American in the Senate along with Republican Tim Scott of South Carolina.
"Thank you so much, New Jersey. I'm proud to be your senator-elect," Booker posted to Twitter Wednesday night. The mayor is an active user of the social media site.
Voters in New Jersey headed to the polls Wednesday to cast ballots in the special election to fill a vacant U.S. Senate seat, left open after the death of Democratic Sen. Frank Lautenberg in June.
Booker, who was heavily favored to win, characterized the race as a referendum on the partisan gridlock that has paralyzed Washington in recent weeks, while Lonegan argued in support of the partial federal government shutdown that began more than two weeks ago.
Polling this week gave Booker leads ranging from 14 points to 22 points over Lonegan.
The election was the first since the partial shutdown began. It came the same day Senate leaders passed a bill to reopen the government and avert a Treasury default. The bill was sent Wednesday evening to the House of Representatives for a vote.
"This is the only election in America right now where we will get a chance to make a statement about what is going on in Washington," Booker said after voting in downtown Newark. "This is a chance for us to send a message about the shutdown, about the gridlock, about all those forces that my opponent represents — the tea party — that says we shouldn't compromise, we shouldn't work together."
Lonegan supported the shutdown, arguing that President Barack Obama's health care law, the Affordable Care Act, should be delayed a year and objecting to the concept of government-directed health insurance. In recent days, he has accused Booker of not even living in Newark.
After voting in Bogota, which he led as mayor for three terms, Lonegan said he has been able to unite Republicans of all stripes.
"We've unified and I'm proud of that," he said. "The entire Republican Party, from the tea party to the moderate wing to pro-life and not so pro-life. Everybody who cares about individual liberty."
At two polling places in Maplewood, a leafy suburb bordering Newark, poll watchers reported a thin but steady stream of voters, according to Reuters.
In the shore town of Point Pleasant, nurse Mary Martin said she voted for Lonegan, a decision that wasn't influenced by the government shutdown.
"I'm a longtime Republican and I just think with the way we're headed, we need more conservative people in there," she told The Associated Press.
The two-month campaign played out under a compressed schedule and was the subject of controversy even before the two candidates were chosen.
Republican Gov. Chris Christie appointed a GOP caretaker and ordered the election held Oct. 16, the soonest date the law allowed following an unprecedented August primary.
Critics accused Christie of keeping the race off the Nov. 5 ballot, when he is up for re-election, to make it easier for him to win big as a Republican in a Democratic-leaning state and aid his potential national ambitions. During his first debate, he refused to rule out a run for president in 2016.
Marcy Phillips, a 30-year resident of Newark, covered her car in Booker signs and was driving around the city Wednesday urging people to vote.
"He's the best out of the candidates right now, and he's the one we need," she told the AP. "As the mayor of Newark, he did his best and right now the whole city has changed."
Lonegan, 57, the former state director of Americans for Prosperity, a group advocating limited government that was founded by the billionaire Koch brothers, ran an aggressive, in-your-face campaign.
"We want a leader, not a tweeter," he said at one point, referring to Booker's prolific use of Twitter, where he has 1.4 million followers.
The abbreviated campaign took odd twists and turns for both candidates.
Booker was forced off-message to explain G-rated correspondence with a stripper he met while filming a social media documentary. Lonegan was forced to dump a longtime strategist after a lengthy, profanity-laced interview with a political website in which he claimed Booker's banter with the stripper "was like what a gay guy would say."
While in Newark, Booker has worked with Christie on common education goals, such as ending lifetime teacher tenure and increasing the number of charter schools. Newark schools remain under state control.
Lonegan repeatedly knocked Booker for the city's high crime rate and unemployment. At one point in the campaign, Booker announced a new crime-fighting strategy to cope with a string of 10 homicides in 10 days.
Lonegan said that as a mayor, he also has reached across the aisle in working with a Democratic borough council.
But Booker painted him as a tea party extremist, one who would — if sent to Washington — make the capital's gridlock worse.