Meet the conservative who might win New Jersey’s Senate seat

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Robby Soave Reporter
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Can a staunch conservative who unabashedly opposes President Barack Obama on everything — from taxes to health care to National Security Agency surveillance — win in deep-blue New Jersey?

Steve Lonegan thinks so — and is campaigning to prove it.

Lonegan, a former Republican mayor of Bogota, New Jersey and former statewide director of the free-market activist group Americans for Prosperity, has filed to run in a special election to fill the Senate vacancy created by the recent death of Democratic Sen. Frank Lautenberg.

It will be an unusually short campaign season. The primary election to determine the Republican and Democratic candidates will take place on Aug. 13. The winners of those races will then have a mere eight weeks before the voters of New Jersey make their decision during an Oct. 16 special election three weeks before the general election.

There will be no candidates for other offices or ballot initiatives for voters to consider, giving Lonegan a unique opportunity to keep the campaign focused on one thing: Obama.

“We have this standalone election, which is going to be a pure referendum on President Obama’s agenda,” Lonegan told The Daily Caller News Foundation.

Lonegan’s views are mostly the opposite of that agenda. As a dedicated constitutional conservative, he opposes the president’s policies on taxes, health care, financial regulation and the environment.

But Lonegan also plans to make an issue of civil liberties.

“I will force the Democrats to become apologists and excuse-makers for Obama’s surveillance techniques,” he said. “I will make that an issue.”

Recent revelations about the federal government collecting telecommunications data on millions of Americans have alarmed voters across the political spectrum. While some Republican, like South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, have defended the Obama administration on this issue, others, most notably Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, condemned the federal government’s surveillance programs.

Put Lonegan in Paul’s camp.

“The worst manifestation of bad government is interventionist government that interferes with our privacy and lives and collects data about Americans,” he said.

The recent revelations regarding NSA, IRS and Department of Justice, coupled with the passage and implementation of the Affordable Care Act, have deepened Lonegan’s opposition to Obama.

“My opinion has gone from, ‘I will give the guy a chance’ to ‘he’s dangerous,’” he said.

Whether the message will prove to be a winner in a blue state like New Jersey remains to be seen. Lonegan currently looks like a long shot. But he can point to recent polls that show the president losing ground among liberals, moderates and independents amid the numerous scandals. The NSA controversy caused Obama to take a massive 17-point approval hit among young people, who have traditionally been his staunchest supporters.

Obama’s name won’t actually be on the ballot in October. But Lonegan, who called his four potential Democratic opponents “identical,” plans to run against his style of liberalism, no matter who gets the nomination.

“I intend to make this a referendum on our constitutional rights, and Obama’s assault on them,” he said.

If Lonegan wins the nomination, he will most likely face Cory Booker, the popular mayor of Newark, in the special election.

“We will hold him accountable for his failed record as mayor of Newark, which is a miserable failure,” Lonegan said.

Lonegan said he is eager to hold his record as mayor of Bogota — where he cut city spending and privatized services — against Booker’s.

Recent opinion polls show Booker ahead of Lonegan by about 26 points. But Lonegan thinks grassroots mobilization will give him an advantage.

“The Democrat liberal candidate is going to have to convince their base that all their surveillance techniques and all their high taxes are OK, and I don’t think that base is going to be very motivated,” he said.

Candidates normally play to their base in the run ups to the party primaries, and then move back toward the center before the general election. But the unusual time frame of the special election will make it harder for the Democrats to distance themselves from the liberal promises they make during the primary campaign, Lonegan said.

“Normally… they can tack to the middle, start telling people they are fiscal conservatives,” he said. “These guys don’t have time to do that. We are going to be on them every step of the way reminding voters how liberal they are.”

Lonegan owes the October special election’s existence to Republican Gov. Chris Christie, who could have instead put the question on the regular Nov. 5 ballot, or delayed selection of a New Jersey senator until next year. The choice of a special election angered liberals who wanted Cory Booker’s name on the general election ballot, and also some conservatives who wanted to delay until 2014.

Christie and Lonegan have at times been rivals, running against each other in the 2009 Republican primary for governor. Then and now, Christie was seen as the more moderate, pragmatic Republican — a label that Lonegan does not dispute.

Still, Lonegan said that there are no hard feelings between the two, and they get along well.

Though Lonegan hasn’t been afraid to criticize Christie when they disagree, he remarked that the governor’s record was overall quite positive.

“Gov. Christie has done some really good things, some important things,” he said, pointing to Christie’ decision to pull out of a regional cap-and-trade program and his conservative stances on health care.

Lonegan believes that Christie will support him fully, should he prevail in August.

“I know that when New Jersey has a Republican governor and a Republican senator, the potential is amazing for the taxpayers of New Jersey,” he said.

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