Elections are not normally held on Wednesdays, but then again, Cory Booker is no ordinary candidate.
After a star turn as Newark's charismatic mayor since 2006, he is now the junior-most member in the U.S. Senate. In a special election to replace Sen. Frank Lautenberg, who died in June, Booker bested Republican opponent Steve Lonegan with about 55 percent of the vote.
"Thank you so much, New Jersey. I'm proud to be your senator-elect," he tweeted.
Booker will become the Senate's second African-American lawmaker. Both he and Sen. Tim Scott (R-South Carolina), who was picked by Gov. Nikki Haley to fill a vacancy, will have to run for re-election in 2014 to win a full six-year term.
University of Louisville political scientist Dewey Clayton said that in addition to adding diversity to the Senate, Booker provides a much-needed infusion of new blood for the Congressional Black Caucus. He reckons that a majority of Americans wouldn't recognize the name Marcia Fudge, the CBC's current chair, but they've heard of Cory Booker.
"It's time for some new blood and leadership. Anytime you get someone winning statewide who's an African-American, that's a plus because you're talking about some who is able to establish a coalition [beyond a majority-Black or other congressional district]," Clayton said.
African-Americans, he added, have found it particularly difficult to win statewide office, so Booker's success at it will help break another barrier.
During the campaign, Booker raised more than $11 million for the race, compared to Lonegan's $1.4 million. He also won endorsements from top Democrats, including President Obama and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the latter adding a whole lot of sugar on top with a $1 million television ad for the candidate.
Before the primary election, which Booker handily won, he held a 25-point lead over his opponent. But in recent weeks, it has narrowed to about half of that, as Lonegan has hammered him on a variety of issues, from Newark's ongoing high crime and poverty rates to Booker's own personal financial interests and a flirtatious correspondence with a stripper on Twitter.
As mayor, Booker also has faced criticisms that he is more show horse than workhorse. A social media fanatic, he has more than 1.4 million Twitter followers and frequently made "super hero" headlines after coming to the rescue of constituents on various occasions.
Perpetuating such a reputation, however, will do him more harm than good in the U.S. Senate, experts say.
"He can go one of two ways. One is to go the Al Franken, Hillary Clinton route, which is to stay out of the spotlight to the best extent possible and focus on the work," said Howard University political scientist Michael Fauntroy. "Or he could go the Ted Cruz route, which is to say, 'I am bigger than the Senate, not withstanding my junior status, and do as much as possible to demonstrate that.'"
With no Democratic counterpart in Congress' upper chamber to the controversial Cruz, who is under fire for helping to ignite the government shutdown, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, all of whom have presidential aspirations, the second option might be tempting.
"You don't get to be a really popular national political figure without having some show horse in you, so the criticism is fair, but that doesn't have to be the whole story," Fauntroy said. "If he tries to [emulate Cruz], he will marginalize himself. And I also don't think Democrats would tolerate that."
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(Photo: AP Photo/Julio Cortez)
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