Does the Tea Party Realize It Lost in New Jersey?

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Dead-endersPhoto: Andrew Burton/2013 Getty Images

Cory Booker beat anti-tax, anti-Obamacare, anti-abortion, pro-gun Steve Lonegan by just eleven points last night in the race to fill the late Frank Lautenberg's U.S. Senate seat. Which means the same question the world has today for tea partiers in Congress also applies to their brethren in New Jersey: Will they realize they lost?
 
Lonegan's campaign will live on in political lore for the sheer, unrestrained glee the candidate took in savaging his opponent. He called Booker "failed," "corrupt," "liberal," and an "Obama rubber stamp" responsible for "high taxes," "violent crime," "expensive failing schools," and "14 percent unemployment" — and that was all in one 30-second ad, which, for good measure, stoked white resentment over Newark agencies spending "our tax dollars." Another Lonegan spot played "California, Here I Come" over images of Booker smiling with celebrities while faux headlines like "Newark Robberies Hit 15-Year High" and "Cory's Abandoned Crack House" floated across the screen. "The only example of economic growth I can find in Newark is the growth in Cory Booker's bank account," Lonegan said at their October 4 debate, with chutzpah that made even Booker chuckle.

And make no mistake, Booker found it hard to laugh off the series of questions that cropped up over the past couple of months: about payouts from his old law firm, about a story he tells involving a former drug dealer named "T-Bone," about his investment in an Internet start-up. Moreover, Booker seemed unprepared for Republicans to use those questions to portray him not just as a liberal, but as a corrupt dandy — an extension of, rather than history's answer to, Sharpe James. Booker's campaign started out fuzzy and complacent, and never really kicked into high gear. Once ahead by as much as 35 points in the polls, he had to go negative at the beginning of this month.
 
Then came last Wednesday. At a debate, Booker, defending environmental regulations, mentioned that swimming is banned in the Passaic River. Lonegan responded, "You may not be able to swim in that river, but it's probably, I think, because of the bodies floating around from shooting victims in your city."
 
After that moment, Daily Record columnist Bob Ingle wrote, "My Twitter feed was filled with messages from people saying they were Republicans but they had decided to vote for Booker."
 
Lonegan also called Barack Obama a "tyrant" and Newark a "big black hole," but it was the floating-bodies phrase that stuck — a vivid example of a right-winger so disgusted by The Other that he literally couldn't control his mouth.
 
Speaking of which, the next day, Talking Points Memo asked Lonegan strategist Rick Shaftan about Twitter messages Booker had exchanged with a Portland, Oregon, stripper named Lynsie Lee. And Shaftan replied: "If he said, 'Hey, you got really hot breasts man, I'd love to suck on them.' Then like, yeah, cool. But like, he didn't say that … It was like what a gay guy would say to a stripper."

Lonegan's only hope of winning in New Jersey, a state Obama carried with 58 percent of the vote last year, was to excite the Republican base while making Democrats forget there was any race at all. Focusing crudely on Booker's sexual orientation pretty much flushed that strategy.
 
Meanwhile, tea party Republicans were losing the budget-and-debt-ceiling showdown. Lonegan thought his campaign would embolden House Republicans — "When I win, Obama will fold," he predicted last week — and, improbably enough, conservative activists believed the government shutdown would provide a rallying cry for their candidate in New Jersey (and Virginia). Instead, by the time Lonegan held his final rally at the Morristown Green on Tuesday night, his supporters were spreading the word that the fix was in: The House couldn't pass any kind of bill, and was punting to the Senate, who would let Obama and his minions reopen the government and keep spending taxpayer money. Some Republicans at the event kept up a brave face — "When Steve wins, the White House will be shitting its pants," said Morris County GOP chairman John Sette. But tea partiers' excitement about the shutdown turned to dread just before the polls opened.
 
Only about 200 people showed up at the Morristown Green that evening, a sharp contrast to the overflow crowds that tea party rallies drew there when the movement was launching in 2009. Back then, liberals misread the tea party as an ephemeral fringe, amped and Astroturfed by Republican Party leaders. It wasn't. It's actually an authentic insurgency, whose members mix and match libertarian, populist, and Christian-fundamentalist ideas and rhetoric to express their anti-big-government, -big-business, and -big-labor grievances, as various predecessors (like Pat Buchanan's "patriots with pitchforks" in the nineties) did in the past.
 
But conservatives also misread the tea party, imagining it to be capable of breaking into and transforming the mainstream of American politics. It wasn't. Its followers are largely middle-class (and white and native born), and therefore familiar in some respects to many political leaders and media types. But a lot of middle-class Americans have insanely right-wing ideas. At the Morristown rallies in 2009, dozens of crowd members seemed perfectly reasonable in polite conversation — and turned out to be carrying signs that said "I Dare Call It Treason" or "The Anti-Christ Is Living in the White House" or "Obama, the Prince of Lies," with a swastika dotting the i in lies.
 
Since then, tea party support has shrunk, leaving its core identifiers even more ideologically driven. "Four years ago, I think taxes were the main issue," John Curtin, an auditor from North Brunswick, said at the Lonegan rally on Tuesday night. "Now, it's that our liberties are being attacked, from our religious beliefs to government regulations." Asked if he thought the Obama Administration was exceeding its constitutional authority, Curtin replied, "Isn't it obvious?"
 
In Morristown, New Jersey, with its monuments and churches, restaurants and fitness centers, arboretum and golf club, the end of days isn't actually apparent. But across New Jersey, as in Washington, apocalyptic certainty gives the tea party staying power, whatever elections say. And the citizens who supported Steve Lonegan, who wanted him to be the Ted Cruz of New Jersey, are starting to talk about their next step.
 
"I've got a list with 28 impeachable offenses that Congress should consider bringing against the president," John Soemer, a mechanical engineer from Flanders, said at the Tuesday rally. "It's actually 52, but 28 are solid. You can't impeach somebody just because you disagree with him."
 
We'll see about that.