The New Jersey Senate Race Highlights the Pathologies of Both Parties

One Garden State candidate is campaigning with Sarah Palin and the other is taking a seven-figure donation from a Wall Street billionaire. 
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The New Jersey state flag predates The Godfather, in case there was any confusion. (Wikimedia Commons)

In a special election Wednesday, New Jersey voters will decide whether to send Republican Steve Lonegan or Democrat Cory Booker to the United States Senate. Who is the better choice? I haven't the foggiest idea. But I do know that the campaign's final stretch has highlighted the pathologies of the right and left.

What's wrong with the Republican Party right now? One of its problems is the near impossibility of firing up its base without alienating the rest of the voting public. Sarah Palin's place on the GOP ticket in 2008, the role Paul Ryan's budget played in Election 2012, and Mitt Romney's remarks about "the 47 percent" are all examples of playing to the base that hurt Republicans on Election Day. With that in mind, ponder the rally that the Tea Party Express just threw for Steve Lonegan. What image did New Jersey voters get in the runup to the election?

There's the candidate over to the left in the background. In the foreground, front and center, is one of the most polarizing politicians in America, someone who is viewed unfavorably by a majority of voters and considered a joke by many of them. And on the right? A talk-radio host who once told a female caller—in a segment not unrepresentative of his hate-filled on-air persona—"I don’t know why your husband doesn’t put a gun to his temple. Get the hell out of here!" Sometimes firing up the base is the best strategy right before an election, so I can't say whether or not this choice of speakers was strategically smart in this instance. But the fact that these are the people who fire up the base? That's an albatross. 

Then there's Cory Booker. Some progressives have long worried that he's a tool of Wall Street or big business generally. Then last week, this happened: "New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has committed $1 million to boost Newark Mayor Cory Booker’s faltering Senate campaign in New Jersey with a new ad campaign." The story came and went relatively quietly in the political press. Evidently, a billionaire trying to purchase elections at the last moment with a seven-figure donation isn't nearly as big a deal when the recipient is a Democrat. (Can you imagine the headlines if the Koch brothers had given the GOP candidate $1 million just before Election Day?) The Bloomberg donation is nevertheless a perfect example of the direction the Democratic Party has gone: With President Clinton establishing the pattern and President Obama reviving it, the charismatic heroes of today's Democrats aren't friendly to the free market so much as they are to big business and big finance—never mind Wall Street's role in the financial crisis or the rent-seeking drag it imposes on the economy.

Pick your poison, Garden State voters. 

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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