The sudden death of New Jersey’s senior Senator Frank Lautenberg has added a new wrinkle and new major race to watch in 2013. Hence, the week found Jersey’s top political power brokers scrambling about to position themselves, with the ramifications of Lautenberg’s death causing a political tremor felt from his home state all the way to Washington, D.C.
Newark mayor Cory Booker made his candidacy official on Saturday at a news conference in Newark, New Jersey’s largest city, which he has led since 2006. He is vying to fill the seat of Lautenberg, who died on Monday at age 89. Reps. Frank Pallone and Rush Holt are also planning to enter the Democratic primary. Candidates have until 4 p.m. Monday to file petitions with the secretary of state.
Booker, 44, said he would travel the state to earn every vote. He’ll have to hurry; Gov. Chris Christie set the primary for Aug. 13 and a special election for the balance of Lautenberg’s term for Oct. 16.
“We need someone in the United States Senate who’s actually had to work on difficult problems, who’s actually had to find people jobs, who’s actually had people standing in front of their homes and had to work on everything from getting people into food stamp programs to helping young people better afford college,” Booker said on Saturday. A second kickoff event was planned later in the day in the predominantly minority municipality of Willingboro in South Jersey.
Gov. Chris Christie’s decision to pick fellow Republican state Attorney General Jeff Chiesa as the emergency placeholder won’t change the fiercely partisan Democratic machine’s perpetual hold on the seat. But as the Governor skillfully squeezed himself through a tight political fix by engineering what some observers were seeing as a slick win-win scenario, Democrats were left with a frenzied field of ambitious Garden State politicos making a bid for the open Senate seat.
What was supposed to be, by most standards, a routine Senate race lost in the mix of many during the 2014 midterms has now morphed into a battle royal. Christie, according to many Jersey political observers, masterfully played his cards by setting the Democratic primary for August 13 and general election for October 16. With neither side of the political aisle pleased, Christie protected his own gubernatorial re-election bid while keeping his 2016 presidential prospects secured.
No one was pleased — but sources say that was Christie’s point. National Republicans had hoped the notoriously keep-it-real Governor would simply make a GOP appointment that would keep the seat warm and competitive for 2014, thereby increasing their chances of snatching the Senate back from Democrats.
Instead, Christie went for a softer approach, careful not to lose any goodwill he struck with the state’s Democratic voters, or to give them any reason to lash back at him statewide. While most polls show the governor ahead by double digits against Democratic state Sen. Barbara Buono, experts familiar with Christie’s political history argue that he didn’t want to risk losing any more support than he already had.
“Christie wants to destroy Buono, plain and simple,” said one Jersey-based strategist with ties close enough to Christie that they wanted to speak on condition of anonymity. “He wants to send a signal to Democrats and Republicans that he is indestructible. If he let the Senate race take place in November, that would be more attention to the Democratic candidates and more Democratic voters turning out that could potentially vote against him.”
Democrats were not pleased either, but with less to lose since they have an expected party lock on the seat. Expediting the electoral landscape in the Garden State much more complicated than it once was. Before Lautenberg’s death, Booker was the shoo-in favorite, with an early spring Farleigh Dickinson University poll showing him trouncing new election entrants Rep. Frank Pallone and Rep. Rush Holt with 50 percent approval — compared to four percent and seven percent for Pallone and Holt respectively.
Now, the new election calendar makes it much more difficult and crowded for Booker, despite his national profile and statewide ID. Pallone wasted no time in making a formal bid announcement and is already ahead of the young Black mayor in fundraising totals.
Still, Emory University political scientist and longtime Booker watcher Andra Gillespie believes “Cory is in a good place.”
“Sure — Pallone is in the lead as far as fundraising and he’s been able to roll over his Congressional race money into a Senate war chest,” Gillespie said. “But Booker’s big advantage is name recognition. Others like Pallone and Holt have big regional followings. But they are not statewide and they’re not really well known outside their districts.”
“People are more likely to know who Cory Booker is. He just needs to catch up with the fundraising.”
That said, Booker’s biggest problem may not be Pallone and Holt, who could split significant chunks of Jersey’s white ethnic and suburban voting blocs to the point where they cancel each other out. The larger challenge could be found in state Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver, a longtime Booker foe. Oliver represents much of the traditional, “old guard” African American political establishment in Jersey that has frequently chided Booker for his position on everything from schools to the gentrification of Newark and urban redevelopment.
Being on Oliver’s wrong side could prove problematic for Booker, who will need Essex County and significant portions of the Black vote to win.
But Oliver is also a longtime Christie rival, who has also accused Booker of being too comfortable with the Republican in Trenton. Oliver wasted no time in blasting Christie for the expensive $25 million price tag for the new election calendar. “I’m very disappointed the governor has chosen to be so transparently political and waste taxpayer money on a special October election,” said Oliver in a statement. “The November general election date is what’s best for taxpayers and voter turnout. It’s unquestionably the best option, but Gov. Christie has chosen to put partisan politics and his self-interest first.”
Days later, it was Oliver adding a new twist to the election with sources and news wires reporting that she was gathering signatures for her own Senate bid. By the filing of this story, Oliver was not returning calls for comment.
“New Jersey is a place where things are not always what they seem,” said Democratic strategist Tara Dowdell, who once worked as an aide to Pallone and expects him to be “a very fierce competitor.”
“It is a very complicated place politically. There are a lot of power spheres politically.”
Sources had expected Oliver to sit on the sideline, perhaps the result of a deal with Booker given his favored status and hoping to not further alienate the Newark Mayor once he arrived in Washington. But the new political calendar and crowded Democratic field puts new pressure on Booker.