Cory Booker, the charismatic Newark mayor who won a national following via Twitter and his own heroics, was elected to the U.S. Senate Wednesday.
Booker, a Democrat, easily defeated Republican Steve Lonegan, the former mayor of Bogota, N.J., in a special election to fill the seat held by Democratic Sen. Frank Lautenberg, who died in June.
Booker is New Jersey's first African-American senator and the only elected black Senator in the upper house. Republican Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina was appointed in January to fill the seat of Sen. Jim DeMint, who resigned.
"Thank you so much, New Jersey, I'm proud to be your senator-elect,'' Booker tweeted minutes after the Associated Press declared him the winner.
Addressing supporters at a victory party, Booker said he will go to Washington "to engage in the kind of hard, humble service that reaches out to others." He also paid an emotional tribute to his father, Cary, who died last week. "Death can end a life, but it cannot end a love," Booker said.
The unusual date for the special election — a Wednesday less than a month before the November legislative and gubernatorial election — was set by Republican Gov. Chris Christie. The end of nine-week campaign, hard fought between Booker and Lonegan, coincided with 16-day government shutdown.
Booker, who is in his second term as mayor of the state's largest city, made much of his ability to cross party lines and reach compromise, often citing his experience working with Republican Gov. Chris Christie on education and economic development in Newark.
As he voted Wednesday, Booker called the election "a chance to make a statement about what is going on in Washington.''
Voters who came to cast ballots at Firehouse #3 in Teaneck, N.J., in the northern part of the state, had the congressional stalemate on their minds. Leonard Hospidor, 42, an audio engineer, voted with one goal: "Stopping the madness.''
Hospidor voted for Booker. But his vote was "not just a partisan thing as it is so much trying to restore a little bit of sanity to the process,'' he said. "It's gotten out of control, the crazy thing, and it's a little bit embarrassing.''
Lonegan, former state director of a Tea Party-supporting group, Americans for Prosperity, said he supported the government shutdown, calling it "a good way to find out which government services are essential,'' and as a way to stop the implementation of the Affordable Care Act.
Michael Diehl, 47, a computer technician who voted for Lonegan, said he also favored the shutdown "If that's what it takes to get them to stop spending down in Washington,'' He patted his shirt pocket. "I've got a mortgage (payment) check in my pocket right now,'' he said. "I've got to make that money, I can't keep putting it on a credit card. I've got to pay my bills.''
The shutdown "hurts my heart,'' said Glenda Hadnott, 60, a partner in an accounting consulting firm. "How do you let this great country all of a sudden have no money to pay Social Security or the military because you're playing some game?" she asked.
Hadnott voted for Booker because "I do not want to see another Republican in there. I don't feel the Republicans care about the middle class and poor.''
"Besides, I love Cory Booker,'' she added. "It's not because of his color,'' but because he is an "open personality,'' said Hadnott, who is African-American. "Cory will go out on the street and Cory will talk to anybody, and he won't put himself on a pedestal.''
Booker entered the race a heavy favorite: New Jersey has not elected a Republican to the Senate since 1972. With a big fundraising advantage, he largely ignored Lonegan until the final two weeks, when opinion polls showed the race tightening to low double-digits. Then Booker began returning Lonegan's fire, calling the Republican an "extremist'' and pointing out Lonegan's opposition to abortion rights and same-sex marriage.
Long considered a rising Democratic star, Booker was able to call on President Obama, who carried New Jersey by nearly 17 percentage points last year, to make a last-minute video on his behalf.
Lonegan mocked Booker as "a tweeter, not a leader.'' Booker's fondness for Twitter – where he has 1.4 million followers — held through Election Day, when he tweeted at least 50 times, compared with about a dozen by Lonegan.
"I worry that he's too much hype and not enough substance,'' said Katie Norris, 47, a copy editor. A Democrat, she voted for Booker regardless. "Compared with Lonegan – I was not a fan,'' she said.
But Denise Eberly, 38, a theater technician, said Booker is simply communicating in a way that's important for an elected official. Booker's high social media profile is to his credit. "There's something to be said about being able to reach people and use the media that's available.''
When Booker replaces Sen. Jeff Chiesa, a Republican appointed by Christie to fill the seat vacated by Lautenberg, Senate Democrats gain an additional vote. That will widen their majority to 55, including two independents who generally vote Democratic, to 45 Republicans.
Contributing: Michael Symons; Associated Press.