WASHINGTON -- He’s not up for election until 2014, but Frank Lautenberg can’t escape questions about his future these days.
On Sunday The Washington Post’s The Fix blog listed Lautenberg as one of the top Senate Democrats to watch for a potential resignation. Tuesday’s Roll Call has a story about the Senator’s future, given his age (he’ll be 90 when he has to run for re-election) and the hungry New Jersey Democrats lining up for a shot at his seat in Washington.
Lautenberg told Roll Call that he’s focused on the recovery from Sandy and declined to talk about his electoral future. In April he told Inquirer colleague Joelle Farrell “I won’t be flushed out and I won’t be pushed out,” and that same month he told the Bergen Record’s Herb Jackson “I’m going to stay as long as the job is not done completely.”
None of those comments exactly say that he’s running again, but they certainly doesn’t say that he’s walking away, either. Lautenberg tried that once, briefly retiring, and found that he hated it and jumped when political upheaval gave him a chance to get back into the Senate.
The decision on his future may hinge heavily on Newark Mayor Cory Booker. Booker, a national star, is mulling a run for governor, but with Gov. Christie’s popularity riding high Trenton might be out of reach. If Booker sits this one out, the consensus in the political establishment is that he instead makes a statewide run in 2014 – for Lautenberg’s seat. Polls already show that Booker would face an uphill climb to unseat Christie, but would open as a favorite against Lautenberg. (Of course, a lot could happen between now and 2014 to change the dynamics).
If Booker runs against Christie, though, and doesn’t face Lautenberg, the calculations change. Plenty of people would love Lautenberg’s seat – Congressman Frank Pallone, Senate President Stephen Sweeney, from Gloucester County and maybe even Congressman Rob Andrews from Haddon Heights. And Lautenberg is not overwhelmingly popular, despite being in statewide office for nearly all of the past 30 years. But he is far better known statewide than any potential rival, except Booker. A challenge from Pallone or Sweeney or Andrews might be tough, but it wouldn’t be nearly as hard as facing the popular Newark mayor. That’s probably a big reason why Lautenberg won’t rule out running again: he very well could be in position to win.
Lautenberg is tough enough that some Democrats wonder if any of the potential challengers would really jump into the race, or if it’s just idle talk. But Roll Call raises the issue that Democrats usually discuss in hushed tones: if Lautenberg wins another term and dies in office or otherwise can’t finish his term, Gov. Christie will get to appoint a replacement, and would be in position to put a Republican into a safe Democratic seat in a tightly-divided Senate.
For Lautenberg, the bottom line seems to be this: if Booker wants to run in 2014, he would be a very tough opponent, and the Senator might do better to walk away rather than engaging in a brutal fight. But if Booker runs for governor, the calculations change and the waiting game continues. Maybe Booker pulls off the upset, or maybe Christie beats him so badly that he’s damaged heading into 2014. Either way, if Booker is not in the mix in 2014, Lautenberg’s path to another term looks much more manageable.
So for now, it seems, Lautenberg, like the rest of the Jersey political world, watches for signs from Newark, and waits.