Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D), the 89-year-old senior senator from New Jersey, might be declining to run for re-election in 2014 because he'll be 91 at the time. Or it could be he announced his pending retirement late Thursday because the polls suggest he would lose a costly Democratic primary fight to popular, almost super-heroic Newark Mayor Cory Booker. In December, Booker said he was "considering" running for the seat, fueling speculation and raising the ire of Lautenberg and other New Jersey Democrats.
Of course, the 2014 voting is a year-and-a-half away — a point Lautenberg made when tipping the news to The Star-Ledger on Thursday: "I am not announcing the end of anything. I am announcing the beginning of a two-year mission to pass new gun safety laws, protect children from toxic chemicals, and create more opportunities for working families in New Jersey." But at this point, Booker is looking like a pretty good bet. A Monmouth University Polling Institute survey released Thursday, before Lautenberg's announcement, showed Booker trouncing all rivals for the 2014 race, garnering 40 percent support to 25 percent for Lautenberg and single digits for every other Democrat. As for Republicans, the only one who's speculatively thrown his hat in the ring is Geraldo Rivera.
With Lautenberg out, Booker is "the favorite to succeed him as senator," says Aaron Blake at The Washington Post. "But Booker is unlikely to get a free ride." A handful of other Democrats have expressed interest in the rare open Senate seat, but just one, Rep. Frank Pallone, is expected to give Booker a real run for his money. The same Monmouth University poll that has Booker the prohibitive favorite also shows that 31 percent of Garden State Democratic primary voters say they want a competitive race, even while 38 percent say they want the party to line up behind Booker. "It's not that he's not the likely senator, but he's not the presumptive senator," a Democrat close to Pallone tells The Post.
The biggest obstacle for Booker may be New Jersey's Democratic machine. "To receive a party's nomination in New Jersey, a candidate needs to get the endorsement, known as the party 'line,' of most of the county party leaders in the state," explain Alexandra Jaffe and Cameron Joseph at The Hill. "That line gives the candidate preferable treatment on the ballot, and almost always leads to a win in the county." And Pallone, who's been in state politics since the 1980s, has much stronger ties to local Democratic power-brokers than Booker.
"There's no such thing as a coronation in politics," New Jersey Democratic Party Chairman John Wisniewski tells The Hill. "There are many stories of those candidates who expected a coronation standing on the outside of the victory party looking in. It's a nomination that's going to be strongly contested and worked for, and it's not going to be handed to anyone."
One thing's for certain, says David Nir at Daily Kos: Senate seats don't open up very often in New Jersey, "so we can expect a pretty intense contest," even if it's just between the 43-year-old Booker and 61-year-old Pallone. In fact, "if it's a battle between a young self-styled reformer with ambitions of national profile versus a creature of the old school intent on following the traditional playbook, it could be a very interesting race indeed."