Sarah Palin and Mark Levin are hitting the Garden State this weekend in the hopes of buoying Republican Senate candidate Steve Lonegan’s campaign against Cory Booker. In the process, their appearance in the “largest grassroots campaign event in New Jersey history” will serve to remind establishment Republicans why abandoning New Jersey to Democrats and media darlings was a mistake.
Palin and Levin are the latest in a string of big-name Republicans (Sen. Rand Paul and Gov. Chris Christie among them) to lend their support to Lonegan, running on a Tea Party platform that has opponent Booker branding him a “flame-thrower.” They are taking their support one step further, however, by bringing the enthusiasm of conservative rallies in traditionally red states deep into the heart of New Jersey, the state responsible for electing both Jim McGreevey and Jon Corzine to its highest office and, yes, launching Booker’s career.
All traditional wisdom indicates that these may be unfriendly waters for the duo. The rally, which some predict will break state records, places Palin where she is most comfortable–speaking candidly directly to voters–and boosts Lonegan’s national stature. Lonegan’s immediate chances at a victory against Booker, however, appear slimmer than the candidate, who calls it a “neck and neck” race, admits. The numbers show his deficit against Booker to have narrowed by about 5 points since Christie’s endorsement, down from 16 to around 11 percentage points with less than one week to election.
Yet while these polls give Booker a comfortable lead, they also demonstrate that time invested by conservatives in New Jersey races pays off. Whatever the results of Tuesday’s election, the presence of conservative stars like Palin and Levin in the state serves to remind conservative voters there that they are not dismissed or forgotten by the Tea Party wing of the movement.
The idea that New Jersey was purple enough for anyone in the Republican Party to invest in campaigning there is something of a novelty of the Tea Party era. The administration of entire counties often falls straight into the hand of the Democrats, particularly the northeastern Hudson and Essex counties. The state Republican party often abstains from running candidates on a municipal level there at all, leading the more conservative elements of those counties to elect nominal Democrats unafraid to cross party lines upon reaching statewide office.
Most notable among these is Democratic mayor and State Senator Brian Stack, who has endorsed Christie’s reelection campaign and invited the Republican governor to put his county back in play. Christie’s election and subsequent high polling numbers among traditionally elusive voter blocks proved that the rift between New Jersey voters and Republican party values was not a matter of demand but supply. The time he invested in endorsing Lonegan moved the needle enough to justify the effort in an election that conventional wisdom said was a foregone conclusion.
Naysayers will argue that Christie’s popularity is not a product of his willingness to engage conservative voters but to compromise with liberal ones. This is a chicken-or-egg scenario that fails to take into account that Christie is the candidate was once beloved by conservatives across the country and only began to shift left when Democrats and the national media lent him incentive to do so.
Yes, Christie has become the sort of moderate so difficult to pin to his own party that his Democratic opponent Barbara Buono’s attempts at depicting him as a right-wing extremist have been met with little more than scoffing. But Christie learned this in a Pavlovian dance with the media. While the Republican establishment continued to turn a blind eye to the state, the governor learned through experience that catering to the mainstream media’s whim can benefit him at the ballot box, and performing otherwise can deprive him of national praise. When he publicly chides the people who pay his salary or makes a viral video with Cory Booker, the cameras all turn to him.
When he works toward achieving conservative goals, the media fall silent–but, often, establishment Republicans fall silent, too. National establishment conservatives give him no incentive to cater to the voters they represent. Palin and Levin’s appearances this weekend will send the opposite message: that when someone like Steve Lonegan unabashedly preaches conservative principles, conservatives will lend him support, even when the RNC would sit it out.
In the long run, it indicates to candidates cut from Christie’s cloth (arguably a much different one than Lonegan or Palin) that conservatives will not forget that they are in power, that they will be there to praise or condemn the work they do with their words as well as their votes. It may have little impact on Christie’s campaign against Buono, but all signs point to the Governor having an entire new term before him to lend his ears to the needs of the voters who will be at Saturday’s rally–voters who often go ignored by both party establishments.