(CNN) — Newark Mayor Cory Booker will move on to New Jersey’s special Senate election as the Democratic nominee after winning his party’s primary on Tuesday, CNN projects.
He’ll battle the GOP winner, former Bogota mayor Steve Lonegan, for the October 16 contest, though polls show Booker is already considered the favorite to win the seat and become the first African American elected to the Senate since Barack Obama.
(Republican Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina is currently the only African American in the Senate, but he was appointed–not elected–to his seat.)
“Thank you. It is such an honor to be your nominee, to be your Democratic nominee for the United States Senate,” he told supporters at his victory party late Tuesday night in Newark.
Speaking with a slightly hoarse voice, Booker pledged to be “unwavering” in finding common ground in Washington if he becomes the state’s next senator.
“The direction I will be most concerned with will not be right or left, it will be with going forward.”
A rising star in his party, Booker handily beat out a crowded field of Democratic candidates for the nomination Tuesday–a group that included Rep. Frank Pallone, Rep. Rush Holt and General Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver.
In the Republican primary, Lonegan toppled physician Alieta Eck. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said Monday at a press conference he fully anticipates endorsing the Republican nominee, no matter who wins Tuesday’s contest.
While Lonegan now moves on as the GOP’s pick for the seat, he trails Booker 29%-54% in a hypothetical matchup among registered voters, according to a Quinnipiac University poll released last week.
With more than 1.4 million followers on Twitter and Oprah Winfrey as one of his biggest supporters, Booker’s appeal and frequent television appearances have reached beyond the borders of the Garden State.
In addition to voting, Booker on Tuesday greeted voters and retweeted shout-outs from celebrities on Twitter, including comedian Sarah Silverman, California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons, writer and actress Lena Dunham, and Ivanka Trump, daughter of real estate titan Donald Trump.
Actress Eva Longoria appeared at an event for Booker on the eve of primary day, encouraging voters to turn out for the two-term mayor.
Elected in 2006, after losing his first mayoral attempt in 2002, the Stanford grad and former football player previously served on Newark city council. Booker’s resume also includes a law degree from Yale and a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford.
His critics have accused the mayor of being more interested in his celebrity status than waging a serious campaign. But Booker’s high profile has helped in part with his massive fundraising haul. As of July 24, the candidate has raised $8.6 million and has $4 million in the bank, according to Federal Election Commission reports.
Rivals also bring up Booker’s involvement in his internet start-up, Waywire. As the chairman with the largest share, Booker began promoting the struggling company last year. Critics argue the business was a distraction to his job as mayor, and they faulted him for initially opening up offices in New York City, rather than in his own town of Newark. Those offices closed down this year, according to The New York Times.
He has said publicly that if elected to the Senate, he would step down from the board of Waywire and put his shares in a blind trust. He would prohibit Waywire from lobbying his office and prohibit his staff from doing any work on the company’s behalf.
“Everybody knows that Mayor Booker is excited about technology and what it can do to empower real people,” campaign spokesman Kevin Griffis said in a statement. “He invested in an idea and helped get a business off the ground, and a lot of people found that idea compelling.”
Christie called the special election after Democratic Sen. Frank Lautenberg passed away in early June. While a Republican interim senator–appointed by Christie–currently holds the seat, it has been expected a Democrat would win the special election in the largely blue state.
At the top of his victory speech Tuesday night, Booker first acknowledged Lautenberg’s legacy. “He has made us safer and healthier. We are a better state and we are a better America because of Senator Frank Lautenberg.”
The winner of the October 16 race will finish out Lautenberg’s term through 2014, and the winner can run for a full term next year.
The nonpartisan political handicappers Stuart Rothenberg and Charlie Cook both rate next year’s Senate race in New Jersey as solid or safe for Democrats.
Christie was criticized earlier this summer when he set the oddly-timed date for the special election. Rather than scheduling the special election to fall in line with the already-set gubernatorial election in November, Christie set the special for October.
Critics pointed to the extra costs to taxpayers for a separate election, but the governor stood by his decision, saying New Jersey voters deserved to have an elected official in the Senate as soon as possible.
CNN’s Jim Acosta, Kevin Liptak and Paul Steinhauser contributed to this report.