Don't Call Him Senator Yet: Cory Booker Could Face Primary Struggle
Sen. Frank Lautenberg's formal announcement Friday that he won't run for another term at age 90 heads off what was looking like a very bitter primary fight with Cory Booker, who has already announced he is exploring a run. But just because Lautenberg's out of the way, doesn't mean Booker's path to the Senate is assured.
Booker starts off as a clear frontrunner in the polls. A survey from Monmouth University this week put him at 40 percent to Lautenberg's 25 percent, with no one else cracking double digits. But he's also the only major candidate to (more or less) declare their candidacy so far. New Jersey is a deep blue state and has an equally deep bench of Democratic politicians, many of whom have been waiting years for a rare open Senate seat to finally pop up.
Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ), a longtime fixture in Congress who turned down an appointment to the Senate seat held by Lautenberg in 2002, is considered Booker's toughest opponent.
"I've always been interested in the Senate and it's something I'm going to continue to explore," Pallone told ABC News radio on Friday.
He's not the only Congressman who has floated their name since Lauteneberg's retirement announcement.
"There's no point in being coy," Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ) told PolitickerNJ on Thursday. "I've made no secret in previous years that I would consider the Senate at the right time."
Then there are New Jersey's state legislators, who are close with the party's most powerful bosses and often named as potential Senate candidates. Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver is a protege of Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo, north Jersey's premier power broker. In the south, State Senate president Steve Sweeney is backed by Democratic fundraiser George Norcross.
DiVincenzo has said he plans to back Booker if Lautenberg retires, but Norcross has made no such commitment and could try to rally the party behind an alternative to Booker.
"Whoever the candidate is, that person will run without opposition and the party will unify around that person," Norcross said, according to Newark's Star-Ledger.
Party leaders hold more than just symbolic power in a Senate primary: the rules are written in a way that lets county parties give their preferred candidate highly favorable placement on the ballot.
"Right now I'd say Booker is the leader of the pack, but not so far out ahead nobody can catch him," Brigid Harrison, a professor of political science at Montclair State University, told TPM. "There are some relatively high level names being talked about and the fact is this is a statewide primary and party lines matter."
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