Booker Runs Toward Obama and Away From Christie

British Prime Minister David Cameron (R), speaks with Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo (L), and Newark Mayor Cory Booker on March 15, 2012 at City Hall in Newark, New Jersey. Cameron visited Newark on the third and final day of his visit to the United States.
Photo: John Moore/Getty Images

Cory Booker owes Barack Obama a thank-you card. Or maybe a nice fruit basket. Because the president has done Newark’s mayor two big favors recently, even if they didn’t look that way to Booker at first. In October, after Hurricane Sandy, Obama’s visit to the Garden State boosted his own preelection image with independents and Chris Christie’s image with almost everyone — sending the Republican governor’s poll numbers so high that he’s now a strong favorite for reelection in 2013. Booker had been considering challenging Christie but today announced he’s looking at running for U.S. Senate instead, apparently after a nudge in that direction from the White House; Booker and the president happen to share a pollster.

The Senate race is both more winnable for Booker and a better fit for his skills. “Running for governor in New Jersey is expensive because you have to play in both the New York City and Philadelphia media markets,” a Democratic insider says. “On top of that, Booker would have been going up against a well-known sitting governor. There’s plenty of time for Christie’s popularity to come down to earth, but it’s a much easier road for Booker to be the media-darling Senate candidate in a strongly Democratic state.” Even if Booker had toppled Christie, actually being governor is something of a booby prize. “That job is very powerful in some ways, but you’re stuck fighting with the legislature and dealing with all the suburbs that are angry about property taxes,” a Democrat strategist says. “For an aspirational politician like Booker, who very much has his eye on history and his place in it, making speeches on the ornate floor of the U.S. Senate is a whole lot more appealing.”

Winning the Senate seat in 2014 is no sure thing, of course. First Booker has to gracefully encourage its current occupant, 88-year-old Frank Lautenberg, to retire. Then he could still face a primary, possibly against Jersey Shore congressman Frank Pallone, and Booker will have to do a better job of explaining his mixed record in Newark than he did in an oddly defensive Huffington Post story on Monday. One New Jersey political player, who is skeptical of Booker’s accomplishments, sees his move today as a continuation of “the devil’s bargain” the mayor has made with Christie, in which they both benefit politically by avoiding clashes. Perhaps. But right now, Booker’s biggest helper works in Washington, not Trenton.