Senate candidate Steve Lonegan calls himself “a regular New Jersey guy” who “worked with a bunch of hard working guys who curse and drink beer,” but as he faces off against Newark Mayor Cory Booker, the Democrat with the national profile and celebrity ties, he is also negotiating the tricky waters of the Republican Party, with Sen. Rand Paul on the one hand and Gov. Chris Christie on the other.
Lonegan, who says the election will be “a referendum on Obama,” hit the stump with Paul by his side Friday. Fundraising with Christie, he said, will come Thursday.
“I think Steve Lonegan can be the answer to how we grow the Republican Party,” Paul said at the rally in Clark, N.J. “Republicans can win in New Jersey the same way Republicans can win in a presidential election, if we become a bigger party … black, white, brown. We need a party that looks like the rest of America and we can be that party.”
The rally followed a champagne brunch fundraiser where donors could also get a photo with Paul and Lonegan.
Lonegan told the crowd, according to video of the event: “Cory Booker is the Hollywood stand-in in this election for Barack Obama.”
ABC News spoke with Lonegan, the Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate, before the event. A former mayor of Bogota, N.J. and a conservative activist, Lonegan says the rally Friday was about “uniting all parts of the party.”
Paul and Christie, both potential Republican presidential contenders for 2016, have engaged in a war of words since last month, criticizing each other’s stances on issues ranging from national security to Hurricane Sandy relief funding. Paul offered to bury the hatchet over a beer, but Christie said he was too busy, citing his gubernatorial re-election campaign.
Christie said he was also too busy to appear at Friday’s event because he had plans to celebrate his wife’s 50th birthday, “just the two of us,” in Florida. “I had to choose — it was a very tough choice … but I had to choose between my wife and Rand Paul,” Christie said at a press conference. “And in a choice between Mary Pat Christie and Rand Paul, it’s no choice for me.”
But on Thursday a massive fire broke out on the Jersey shore, devastating an area re-built after Superstorm Sandy, and instead of a Florida getaway he spent the weekend on the Jersey Shore this time for another disaster.
Although Christie endorsed and campaigned with Lonegan last month, they were rivals when they faced off for the Republican gubernatorial nomination in 2009. Christie won and went on to beat Gov. Jon Corzine. Despite the endorsement, Christie has had a past warm relationship with Booker.
This time around, Lonegan said Christie is “out there 100 percent, so it’s all really good.”
“I’m sure the governor is open to dialogue and to unifying the party,” Lonegan said.
So, what does Lonegan, known for his own blunt style, think of the Christie-Paul squabble? He doesn’t see it as a “feud at all.”
“I think the governor is as concerned about civil liberties as is Rand Paul. It’s just how you get there and what the level of security that is needed,” Lonegan said. “I anticipate that ultimately the governor comes down on the side of civil liberties with us.”
“I think there are far more important issues to the public,” he added. “While this is entertaining, it’s not critical.”
The most recent poll from Rutgers University’s Eagleton Institute of Politics this month showed Booker leading by 35 points, 64 percent to 29 percent. Lonegan discredited the poll in the ABC interview, but did acknowledge Booker “has the lead,” saying it is because “he is Mr. Name I.D., he’s been anointed by Hollywood, he had Oprah Winfrey in here, he’s got all this Hollywood money. But this election is not a popularity contest, it is about the issues and as soon as it becomes about the issues, I win.”
Those issues are opposition to military intervention in Syria, domestic spying and the NSA, and especially the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.
“October 16th becomes a referendum on the Obama agenda in New Jersey,” Lonegan said of the date of the general election. “It’s not just an election of Steve Lonegan vs. Cory Booker. It’s very much a referendum on Obama and the country understands that. That’s why we have money coming in, people coming in, the polls are going to change over time, we know that.”
As for Syria, he said the “president’s leadership has failed and it’s sad for our country when the Russians step up and solve our foreign affairs problems.”
Lonegan grabbed headlines last month when he seemed to raise old rumors that Booker might be gay, but he said if he had to do it over again, he wouldn’t do anything differently.
“No, do I regret it? No. … I never ever questioned whether Cory Booker is gay, that never came out of me or my campaign even in the slightest bit,” Lonegan said. “That was something contrived by his campaign and they took pride in it.”
Lonegan blamed it on the “liberal left.”
“I don’t care if Cory Booker is gay or straight, he’s too liberal for New Jersey and he’s the failed mayor of Newark and that’s what matters,” Lonegan said.
Lonegan told conservative Newsmax TV last month that Booker’s comments that he doesn’t care if people think he is gay because “I want to challenge people on their homophobia” were “weird.”
“As a guy, I personally like being a guy,” Lonegan said at the time, and when asked directly if he thought Booker was gay, Lonegan answered that he did not know, but “maybe that helps to get him the gay vote by acting ambiguous.”
As for his straightforward style, Lonegan said he may be “rough around the edges,” but called himself a “straight shooter.”
“I’m just a regular New Jersey guy. I might not have had the Hollywood training of Cory Booker … I’ve never had any of those sort of training in politics,” Lonegan said. “I was a kitchen cabinet manufacturer for 25 years. I didn’t have any of this training… I worked with a bunch of hard working guys who curse and drink beer.”
At the rally, Paul also jabbed Booker saying, “You want a senator that believes in real people.”
“You want a senator who isn’t busy creating imaginary friends, you want a senator busy creating real solutions,” Paul said.
Paul was referring to a story last month in the conservative magazineNational Review that said T-Bone, a drug dealer Booker said he befriended and a common story he told publicly, was a composite figure.
“I think this is a politician who makes up stories to contrive an image of something he’s not,” Lonegan said in the interview. “He’s convinced people in Hollywood that he’s turned Newark around. Newark is a mess. Newark is far off worse now than it was under (former Newark mayor) Sharpe James.”
Booker’s campaign fired back with his communications director Kevin Griffis saying, “The one consistency throughout all of Steve Lonegan’s many campaigns is the problem they have with telling the truth.”
“We appreciate his campaign bringing another Tea Party leader to New Jersey to highlight Mr. Lonegan’s opposition to Sandy aid, his support for a plan that would raise taxes on the working and middle classes, and his advocacy of policies that would roll back women’s rights,” Griffis said in a statement.
In a conference call arranged by the Booker campaign Friday elected officials and residents affected by Hurricane Sandy criticized Lonegan and Paul.
“For anyone that wants to say that our small communities in the state of New Jersey don’t need aid we do … you know what Steve, Mr. Lonegan, for you to oppose federal aid to these small communities and Rand Paul it’s a shame, it’s a disgrace,” Ocean Gate Councilman James McGrath said. “You want to represent us and you are not … that’s what being an American is all about, helping each other out.”
Paul confronted those types of critiques at the event Friday, calling it a “lie.”
“It’s not about having disaster relief funds, it’s about being responsible taxpayers and not borrowing from China to rebuild in New Jersey,” Paul said.
Booker and Lonegan are battling it out in the special election to replace Frank Lautenberg, who died in June.