In his concession speech to Senator-elect Cory Booker in Bridgewater, N.J., on election night, Steve Lonegan announced that he would retire from elective politics and enter private business, rather than mount another U.S. Senate race against Booker next year or return to his post as New Jersey director of Americans for Prosperity, a high-profile position he held from 2007 until mid-2013. Whether or not he holds to this withdrawal, conservatives not just in New Jersey but the nation owe Lonegan a debt of gratitude for the underfunded yet exciting campaign he waged, and what it suggests for the future of Republican politics.
Lonegan was given zero chance of winning this election, and he waged his campaign with virtually zero resources compared to the eight-figure Booker financial juggernaut. Official Republican party committees in Washington, all rolling in money, spent not a dime. Even in terms of independent expenditures, Lonegan’s handful of outside backers were outspent more than 10 to 1.
Starting from as much as 35 points behind as recently as the aftermath of the August primary, Lonegan wound up losing by 10.3 percentage points, according to nearly complete returns. This was a margin of defeat little more than half of that suffered by Mitt Romney last year and the moderate Republican U. S. Senate nominee last year. As to Senate candidates in deep-blue New Jersey, his 44.3 percent tied for the best GOP percentage since the late Congressman Bob Franks came within 3 points of upsetting Jon Corzine back in 2000.
Steve Lonegan broke every rule promulgated by conventional wisdom and Republican campaign consultants. On economics he ran as a hardline libertarian, supporting the supposedly toxic GOP federal lockout (which was in full effect for the last 16 days of the campaign), attacking Social Security and Medicare as well as Obamacare, and even opposing the federal disaster aid meted out to New Jersey in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. On social issues, he opposed legalized abortion including in cases of rape and incest, and firmly backed traditional marriage (and even ridiculed the gay lifestyle) in a state supposedly pining for the immediate enactment of gay marriage.
Contrast Lonegan’s performance with that of Virginia GOP gubernatorial nominee Ken Cuccinelli, a long-time conservative hero who has reversed his past history and adhered closely to the Republican establishment playbook, including tacit embrace of the “truce” strategy on social issues. In the same weeks Lonegan was giving Cory Booker fits in New Jersey and closing to within 10 points in a “safe Democratic” Senate race, Cuccinelli was turning a dead-even race into a 10-point deficit against legendary Democratic sleaze ball Terry McAuliffe. What does this say about the GOP debate between the establishment and Ted Cruz-style militancy?
The latter is said to have been discredited by the failure of the GOP-led shutdown. But if Steve Lonegan’s campaign performed better in blue New Jersey than the consultant-driven gubernatorial campaign in Virginia, declarations of victory by establishment Republicans may prove a bit premature.
Correction: This post was originally wrong in stating that the Steve Lonegan campaign ran no television advertising. Internal estimates from the campaign are that Lonegan spent $700,000 in broadcast TV commercials, all in the expensive New York market, plus another $200,000 in cable ads.
Jeffrey Bell, director of policy at American Principles Project, was Republican nominee for the U. S. Senate in New Jersey in 1978.