Newark's Democratic Mayor Cory Booker holds a substantial early lead in the race to fill the state's open seat in the U.S. Senate, according to the first statewide polls on the race since Senator Frank Lautenberg's death last week.
Booker, one of the state's best-known Democrats, was one of the first to enter the race, but faces a growing field of party rivals, including Representative Rush Holt. Congressman Frank Pallone, is set to announce a bid later on Monday, and State Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver is also expected to run.
More than half of the polled New Jersey voters told Quinnipiac University pollsters they had a favorable opinion of Booker, who has been in office since 2006.
That popularity is not lost on Democrats, who have criticized Governor Chris Christie, a Republican, for calling an October 16 special election, rather than waiting for November 5, when voters will be voting on a number of issues including Christie's re-election bid.
New Jersey voters polled by Rutgers-Eagleton criticized Christie's decision to hold the special election so close to the general election. Each election will cost about $24 million to administer.
Booker holds a commanding lead over his rivals in the August 13 primary, according to the Quinnipiac poll released on Monday. It showed 53 percent of Democratic voters supporting Booker, compared with 10 percent backing seven-term Congressman Holt, 9 percent backing Pallone and 23 percent undecided.
Quinnipiac polled 858 New Jersey voters June 6 through 9, concluding Sunday night, before Oliver tossed her hat into the ring.
"It's Newark Mayor Cory Booker in a runaway in this first look at the special election," said Maurice Carroll, director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. "Who are those other guys? The record shows that Congressmen Frank Pallone and Rush Holt are big in their districts, but, state-wide, no one knows them."
Booker also performed well against Republican Steve Lonegan, a conservative activist who four years ago lost to Christie in the Republican primary for governor and also suffers from low name recognition. In a potential general election match-up, Booker would beat Lonegan 54 to 27 percent, the poll found. Holt and Pallone would also beat Lonegan, but by smaller margin.
The Rutgers-Eagleton Poll released later on Monday showed Booker with a similarly wide lead. Among registered Democrats and independents leaning Democratic, 55 percent backed Booker, while Pallone trailed with 9 percent and Holt had 8 percent.
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