Does Cory Booker Really Want to Come to Washington?

Polls predict the popular Newark mayor will easily win his Senate primary tonight. Poor guy

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Eduardo Munoz / REUTERS

Newark Mayor Cory Booker announces his plans to run for the U.S. Senate seat during a news conference in Newark, N.J., on June 8, 2013

UPDATE: The Associated Press called the Democratic Senate primary election for Cory Booker at 8:42 p.m. E.T. with approximately 7% of counties reporting.

Little suspense surrounds today’s Democratic Senate primary election in New Jersey, which Newark Mayor Cory Booker should win in a cakewalk. But there is an element of mystery here: Why on earth does Booker want to be a U.S. Senator?

Booker’s claim to fame is the ancient art of retail politics, with a very modern social-media twist. Snowed in during a blizzard? Just tweet him and he’ll come dig you out. (Maybe personally.) Pothole? Let him know; he’ll send a crew. Booker might even come and rescue you from a burning house.

These prolific deeds and tweets — and tweets of deeds — have helped make Booker one of New Jersey’s most-admired public figures, with an approval rating in the high 60s earlier this year.

Now consider the U.S. Senate. Retail politics is a skill wasted in that stuffy chamber, where Senators only have to go out and touch real people — er, shake hands with their constituents — once every six years. Senators don’t fix potholes. Never mind flaming buildings — they rarely even kiss babies. Senators spend their days in meetings: with lobbyists, with interest groups, with other Senators, with the Administration, with fundraisers and with their leadership. They’re inside operators.

In other words, Booker’s frenetic energy and love of real-world interactions are far better suited for a big city like Newark. Or Iowa or New Hampshire, and the other stomping grounds of a presidential candidate, something the ambitious Booker likely aspires to be someday.

For Booker, the obvious path from Newark to the White House would run through the New Jersey governor’s mansion. Leading a state is generally considered the best training for a presidential run. (Think Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter and more.) Unfortunately for Booker, New Jersey’s current governor, Chris Christie, happens to be at least as popular as he is, and maybe even more so. He’s thought to have a lock on re-election. Booker considered a challenge to Christie anyway. But then Senator Frank Lautenberg died, and suddenly a new path opened up. It may not have been Booker’s first choice. But it was less risky than taking on Christie, and more promising than sticking around stubbornly depressed Newark. Booker must know that a sitting mayor has never been elected President.

“I would have bet on Chris Christie [to beat Booker in a governor’s race], and I think deep down Booker thought the same. So a Senate seat is the other big prize, and it was available for the taking,” says Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. “When he inevitably runs for President, Booker will claim executive experience from Newark and national expertise via the Senate. Not a bad combination. Somehow, I doubt Booker plans a terribly long Senate stay before his next move.”

Indeed, the Senate is not a place for impatient people. It was a great, if brief, résumé builder for Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama — not to mention the latest crop of presidential hopefuls, Ted Cruz and Rand Paul. But it is not a place to grandstand and to do anything really important you have to wait half a lifetime to accrue enough seniority. Just ask John Kerry: it took him 24 years to become chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Many smart, motivated politicians have come to the Senate only to throw their hands up in disgust at the chamber’s archaic rules and often glacial pace. There’s a reason it’s called the world’s most deliberative body.

Booker says he can shake things up in Washington. “It’s time for action and getting things done,” he declared in a primary debate last week. But Congress is badly gridlocked, and lawmaking has ground to a virtual halt.

Assuming Booker wins today and prevails against a weak GOP field in the Oct. 16 special election, his prize will be a backbench seat in a hated institution where he’ll be expected to dim his wattage, at least in the short term. It’s almost enough to make a burning house sound like fun. But for now, it seems, Booker will have to settle for it.