Believe it or not, there actually is good news for Republicans in the first Quinnipiac polling on New Jersey’s US Senate special election slated for October.  Newark Mayor Cory Booker blows everyone out of the water, as is to be expected, but Republicans have plenty of upside — and at least a few months to make their case:

Newark Mayor Cory Booker has substantial leads over relatively unknown Democratic primary and general election opponents in a first look at the New Jersey U.S. Senate race by the Quinnipiac University poll today.

Mayor Booker gets 53 percent of the Democratic primary vote, with 10 percent for U.S. Rep. Rush Holt and 9 percent for U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone, the independent Quinnipiac (KWIN- uh-pe-ack) University poll finds. Another 23 percent are undecided. The survey concluded Sunday night, before State Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver tossed her hat into the ring.

In a general election matchup, Booker tops Republican Steve Lonegan 54 – 27 percent. Other possible matchups are closer as Pallone leads Lonegan 39 – 29 percent and Holt tops the Republican 36 – 31 percent.

New Jersey voters have a 57 – 14 percent favorable opinion of Booker, while 25 percent don’t know enough about him to form an opinion. The “don’t know enough” measures for the other contenders are:

  • Pallone – 68 percent;
  • Holt – 67 percent;
  • Lonegan – 62 percent.

Quinnipiac pollster Maurice Carroll notes that Booker has the name recognition advantage, but asks whether Booker will have the political organization outside of Newark to take advantage of it.  I doubt that will be a problem; Democrats had been preparing Booker ever since the Democratic National Convention for a state-wide race, although they thought it would be against Chris Christie.  Christie’s embrace of Obama and his wildly popular governance through Hurricane Sandy forced Booker into the Senate race instead, but that takes the same kind of organization — and now that Frank Lautenberg has passed away, some of his organization will likely end up in Booker’s.

The real question will be whether a Republican can take advantage of the next four months to become a household name in New Jersey.  This is where Christie could have an impact on the race — other than to put it in the least favorable terms for Republicans possible, which the scheduling already does.  He’s leading the gubernatorial polling by 30 points over Barbara Buono, 59/29, including a whopping 70/18 among independents.

So far, Lonegan is the only Republican in the race.  If that remains the case — and there probably aren’t a lot of Republicans eager to square off against Cory Booker in both 2013 and 2014 — then Christie should help raise Lonegan’s profile and let some of his popularity boost the GOP in the special election.  That wouldn’t put Christie at much risk for his re-election and might give his party a fighting chance for the election. It would still be a long shot against the popular Booker, but Lonegan at least has plenty of room for growth, and fares slightly better than Buono in the matchup.

However, Jamelle Bouie thinks Booker isn’t quite the shoo-in that he appears:

All of this is good news for Booker, but it doesn’t mean he’s safe. Buzzfeed’s Ruby Cramer highlights the extent to which Booker isn’t loved in the New Jersey political establishment. The New Jersey Democrats who have lined up against Booker believe that he’s a showhorse — someone who hasn’t devoted the necessary effort to his job as Newark mayor, and instead has worked to build a national profile for himself, independent of his actual performance:

New Jersey political insiders said Democratic competitors will seize on the narratives that have persisted around Booker for years — that he spends too much time outside of New Jersey; that he is more popular outside the state than inside; that his record in Newark can’t hold up to scrutiny — and that they play up their longstanding relationships with the state party apparatus, which Booker has been known to challenge.

In defense of Booker, it’s hard to see how he could have avoided this. In general, African Americans have a hard time moving up the political ladder, and winning statewide office. This is especially true for black politicians who serve majority black constituencies; not only are they somewhat out of the political mainstream — on account of the particular interests of black voters — but they have a harder time fundraising and building a broader political base. It’s unfortunate, but opportunities are limited for politicians who are explicitly identified with African American voters. It’s why Barack Obama strays away from discussion of race. His blackness can hurt his political appeal (as was true during the Henry Louis Gates controversey) as much as enhance it.

All of this is to say that Booker’s ambition required him to immediately reach outside of Newark, and begin building the national image that could broaden his appeal and form the basis for a statewide run. And the irony of this, as Cramer details, is that it provides fodder for his Democratic opponents.

We’ll see just how prescient this analysis is in part by seeing how many Democrats and Republicans sign up as potential opponents to the Booker juggernaut.  If he’s perceived as vulnerable more within New Jersey than he seems outside of it, we’ll get a flood of candidates entering into both primaries.  If not, we can assume that the perception outside of the Garden State matches the political reality within it.

Update: Actually, Doug Mataconis notes, the deadline for entry is almost here: