Booker will need to mend fences in time for 2014 Senate campaign

Sen. Frank Lautenberg’s (D-N.J.) decision to retire cleared what was likely the largest obstacle to Newark Mayor Cory Booker’s path to the Democratic nomination for Senate in New Jersey, but Democrats privately warn that Booker will have to mend fences coming out of a turbulent two months.

“Mayor Booker will probably be spending a lot of time unruffling some feathers and making new friends,” said Democratic strategist Hank Sheinkopf, who has worked extensively on races in New Jersey.

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Booker's decision to run for Senate instead of challenging Gov. Chris Christie (R) rankled many Democrats, who say his handling of the decision — announcing before Lautenberg had officially made up his mind on retirement — was disrespectful to the incumbent. They also believe Booker left the party in the lurch by eliminating its best chance at defeating Christie.

But with Lautenberg out, other candidates will emerge in the coming months, and Booker’s slight could be a distant memory come 2014. State Sen. Ray Lesniak, a Booker ally and a top power broker in the state, said that the political players in New Jersey don’t tend to hold grudges.


“With regard to the party leaders, they’re a pretty tough group. They’re gonna want to back a candidate they think is the most likely winner, and that gives Cory Booker a big edge,” he said.

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. That line gives the candidate preferable treatment on the ballot and almost always leads to a win in the county.

Party leaders, when deciding which contender to endorse, consider what that person can do for their local candidates. Booker could have an advantage there, with his fundraising ability and national profile that would help boost down-ballot candidates.

But Lesniak noted that the way Booker handled his announcement “certainly burned the relationship with Sen. Lautenberg,” and Lautenberg still has allies in the state that may be skeptical of Booker long into 2014.

And many skeptics privately note that Booker hasn’t yet faced scrutiny on his record as mayor of Newark. The local teachers union has taken issue with his policy in favor of charter schools, and he cut the police force, attracting the ire of the city’s police union.

Sheinkopf said Booker’s best bet would be to raise enough funds to dissuade any possible challengers from entering a primary, avoiding early scrutiny of his record.

“Booker is better off with no contest than some contest, so that his tenure as mayor of Newark does not become an issue,” he said.

But New Jersey Democrats believe a hotly-contested primary is likely. Rep. Frank Pallone is expected to launch a bid, and Rep. Rush Holt, state Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver, State Sen. Stephen Sweeney are all considering it.

In the meantime, sources say Booker has privately met with or called a number of power brokers in the state, knowing he needs to smooth over relationships if he hopes to have a strong showing in the primary.

But Lesniak noted that Booker will have an opportunity past meetings to improve his standing with the party. Any possible 2014 contenders will be closely watched during the upcoming gubernatorial race, which will offer the candidates a dress rehearsal of sorts.

They’ll be expected to show their campaigning and fundraising skills in efforts to back the Democratic Party’s likely nominee, Barbara Buono, as evidence that they’ll be able to do the same thing for congressional candidates in 2014.

“Meetings are all well and good, but this is New Jersey. This is New Jersey politics. Party leaders are gonna want to see him out there campaigning,” he said.

Ultimately, Booker’s national profile and deep-pocketed donors will be his greatest asset, but Lesniak warned that he can’t simply bank on being the best-known tweeting mayor in the state.

“It would be dangerous for him to rely on his star power,” he said.