Republican Senate candidate Steve Lonegan considers next month’s special election in New Jersey a referendum on Obamacare, NSA spying, IRS abuses, the Middle East—in short, the numerous failures he ascribes to the Obama presidency. And if any politician in New Jersey can claim to represent the polar opposite end of the political spectrum from Obama, it’s Steve Lonegan.
Last year, before the Senate campaign began, he had this to say about Obamacare: “I have no interest in paying for your health care. I’d hate to see you get cancer, but that’s your problem, not mine.” He opposes abortion in all cases, including rape and incest. And last month, he mocked his opponent, Democrat Cory Booker, for making ambiguous statements about his own sexual orientation and for going “out at three o’clock in the morning for a manicure and a pedicure.” “He is the face of the Tea Party in New Jersey,” says Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University.
When Lonegan spoke to Newsweek recently, he was more tame than he has been in many of his public statements—although he only sort of retreated from his previous comments on Booker’s sexual orientation, saying, “I don’t care what this guy is. He has manicures and pedicures at odd times. Is he gay or not gay, I don’t care—he’s too liberal for New Jersey.”
He was also adamant that he can win the October 16 election to replace senator Frank Lautenberg, who died earlier this year. The latest Rutgers-Eagleton poll finds him trailing Booker by 35 points, yet he is undaunted, disparaging the survey as “random digit dialing nonsense,” and putting his faith in the angry voters he says will turn out for him.
Until recently, Lonegan, age 57, was the state director of Americans for Prosperity, the conservative group funded by the Koch Brothers. He has been legally blind since the age of 14 (“I really don’t like to bring this into the campaign. It goes back to when I was a child,” he says when asked about it). From 1995 to 2007, he served as mayor of Bogota, New Jersey, a small suburban town just outside New York City with 2-to-1 Democratic registration and a population of under 10,000. While in office, he kept property taxes low and warred with the local police union over pensions and privatization. “In all these little towns, you don’t care where your mayor stands on abortion, you care about whether your taxes are low and your services are being delivered,” says Dworkin.
Lonegan ran for Congress in 1998, losing by more than 30 points, and mounted two subsequent attempts to win the Republican nomination for governor, losing both times, most recently to Chris Christie in 2009. This summer, however, he managed to snag the GOP Senate nomination when no better-known Republican contenders jumped into the field. His onetime opponent Christie has endorsed him, and, while few observers think he has a chance, Lonegan believes he can beat Booker—whom he portrays as an emperor with no clothes, all public image without a comparable record of accomplishment. “This is a neck and neck race,” he says, noting that he has money coming in from all over the country. “It’s about who’s got the most motivated base.”