Booker seen as favorite in NJ Senate race, but timing boosts Rep. Pallone

New Jersey Democrats say Newark Mayor Cory Booker (D) would enter the race to replace the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D) as the clear front-runner — but the timing of the election has improved Rep. Frank Pallone Jr.’s (D) chances of an upset. 

Gov. Chris Christie (R) infuriated Democrats and Republicans alike by setting the Senate special election for Oct. 16, rather than holding it on the same day as New Jersey’s Nov. 5 gubernatorial election. 

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But Pallone could benefit from a speedy special that somewhat neutralizes Booker’s main advantage — his long political coattails — and plays directly into some of the congressman’s strengths, including his considerable war chest and state connections.

Multiple New Jersey Democratic officials confirmed to The Hill that Booker, Pallone and Rep. Rush Holt (D) had already contacted them to indicate they’ll run. 

All three prospective Senate candidates attended Lautenberg’s Wednesday funeral, along with Rep. Bill Pascrell (D), who this week told The Hill he “would think” about mounting a campaign.

The eventual Democratic candidate will head into the Oct. 16 special as the heavy favorite. President Obama carried New Jersey by 18 points last November, and a Republican has not won a Senate seat in the state since 1972. 

Booker, Pallone and Holt are facing a Monday afternoon deadline to turn in the 1,000 signatures they’ll need to get on the primary ballot.

More difficult is the slog to the Aug. 13 primary.

“The key for a contested Democratic primary is getting organizational support, particularly for Frank Pallone,” said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute.

“Cory Booker has higher name recognition across the state, and that goes a long way in a special, but you can counteract that by getting the county party organizations to endorse you and give you preferable treatment on the ballot.”

One prominent New Jersey Democrat, who requested anonymity to speak frankly on the campaign, said he had been contacted by Pallone and Booker, and indirectly by a person connected to Holt.

The Democrat said “Pallone can never be underestimated” because the contours of the special are more favorable to him than the November 2014 Senate election.

“This is Pallone’s only hope, so I would not expect that he would back down from the fight,” the source said.

“Pallone will make it a race. It’s not a walkover. In the end, though, I think Booker prevails — but I wouldn’t crown him yet.”

One of Booker’s biggest strengths is his star power, which got a boost with a well-received speech at last year’s Democratic National Convention. 

He has the ability to fire up the Democratic base and — in a regularly scheduled election — could boost turnout for down-ballot candidates 

But the odd-date special robs him of that potential advantage. 

Pallone, with his decades of experience raising funds and campaigning for local candidates, can call in some of those favors. 

“[County party chairs] aren’t worried about (Booker’s) coattails because there are no races down ballot,” Murray said.

“That enables Frank Pallone to call them up and say that he’s been working on their behalf, that he’s been working with party chairs all these years so he deserves a chance. He can say that he’s not some Johnny-come-lately Democrat.”

Pallone has $3.7 million in the bank, as of his last filing, compared with Booker’s $1.6 million. That could give him an early advantage in launching his organization and going on air in the expensive media markets in the state.

But Booker is likely to have no trouble ramping up his fundraising in time for the special. 

He has a wide range of national celebrities to tap for cash, including Hollywood supporters like DreamWorks studio co-founders Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg, as well as actor Bruce Willis, Ocean’s 11 producer Jerry Weintraub and “Star Trek” director J.J. Abrams. 

All served on the host committee of an April gala for Booker.

Variety reported this week that Booker has a “young Hollywood” fundraising event planned Monday at The London West Hollywood.

At least two county chairmen are leaning toward backing Booker regardless, with an eye on the 2014 Senate election, when candidates could benefit from having the Newark mayor on the ballot. 

David Ganz, chairman of the Board of Freeholders in the Bergen County Democratic Party, said his organization is leaning toward Booker “because he can win” in 2014. 

“There are two freeholders, including me, whose seats are up the following year, and I, quite frankly, can’t wait to run with Cory Booker because he’s going to win, and he’s got coattails,” he said.

Passaic County Democratic Party Chairman John Currie said he is friends with — and respects — Booker, Pallone and Holt. 

But he believes Passaic County Democrats will be leaning toward Booker.

“I’m fond of Congressman Pallone as well, but Cory Booker does have tremendous star power, and I’ve known him a long time and he’s been helpful to our organization,” he said.

Holt, meanwhile, has the potential to be a spoiler because he could split any voters looking for a Booker alternative and undermine Pallone’s shot at a win.

Booker’s spokesman publicly said the mayor “will make an official announcement at the appropriate time,” while Pallone’s staff declined to comment. 

A source close to Holt said the congressman planned an “imminent” decision. 

“He’s looking at the seat with a lot of seriousness. He’s not been shy about that from as far back as February,” the Holt source said. 


Cameron Joseph contributed


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