Booker eyes Lautenberg’s Senate seat

Newark Mayor Cory Booker’s announcement Thursday that he will explore a run for Senate in 2014 complicates the political landscape for New Jersey House Democrats who are also eyeing the seat.

Booker’s move will surely shake up the Democratic campaign for the New Jersey Senate seat in 2014, as he’s a charismatic young star in the party who was a surrogate for President Obama’s reelection.


But the mayor’s decision to dive into the Senate race, rather than challenge Gov. Chris Christie (R) in 2013, is not expected to clear a Democratic Senate primary field that could grow quite crowded, whether or not Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) decides to run for reelection.

Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.) has long been interested in running for the Senate, and a Pallone aide said Booker’s announcement does not change that. Pallone has $3.5 million in the bank for a potential run, according to Federal Election Commission data.

Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.) told The Hill on Thursday that he is not ruling out a run, either. 

“Everything is possible,” Pascrell said. “I have an obligation to the folks in the 8th and new 9th [districts], and that’s what my primary concern is right now. But I can shift gears very easily.”

Lautenberg, the oldest member of the Senate — he’ll turn 89 in January — has not made his plans for 2014 clear. 

His spokesman, Caley Gray, said in a statement that Lautenberg was focused on his work in the Senate on the Hurricane Sandy relief bill and what he called America’s broken gun laws.

“This is not the time for political distractions, and the senator will address politics next year,” Gray said.

Booker, who announced his Senate interest in a YouTube video Thursday, said that he would be “consulting” with Lautenberg as he explores a run, but Booker did not say what he would do if Lautenberg doesn’t retire.

“Let there be no doubt I will complete my full second term as mayor of Newark, N.J. And as for my political future, I will explore the possibility of running for the United States Senate in 2014,” Booker said in the video.

One of Booker’s top attributes is his fundraising ability, which has helped him earn a reputation as a national figure for the Democrats. But he also stumbled during the 2012 campaign when he said that the Obama campaign’s attacks on Bain Capital were “nauseating.” He later issued a response video clarifying his remarks.

Nonetheless, Booker’s star power made him the Democrats’ best hope in 2013 to take down Christie, who also has national ambitions. Booker’s decision not to challenge Christie could have negative reverberations, said New Jersey Democratic strategist Paul Swibinski.

“Now he’s choosing an easier path, or what he believes is an easier path,” Swibinski said. “But if it’s a crowded field — if Lautenberg is running and Booker is running and Pallone is running — I think it could potentially be a competitive scenario.”

Pascrell said that he spoke with Booker by phone on Thursday about his interest in the Senate.

“Cory is a very astute politician, and sometimes he gets a little bit ahead of himself, but don’t we all?” Pascrell said. “So I can’t fault him on that. I have confidence he’ll do the right thing.”

Lautenberg is no stranger to a contested primary. Rep. Robert Andrews (D-N.J.) mounted an unsuccessful challenge against him in 2008.

Sen. Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerSunday shows preview: Shutdown negotiations continue after White House immigration proposal Trump blasts Pelosi for wanting to leave country during shutdown The Senate should host the State of the Union MORE (D-N.Y.) also endorsed a Lautenberg reelection bid last year. 

Andrews and others said that Booker’s bid would not have much impact on what Lautenberg ultimately decides to do in 2014.

“I wouldn’t think so. I think the senator will make up his own mind based on what his priorities are,” Andrews told The Hill on Thursday.

A potential primary pitting Booker against Pallone or Pascrell could be a battle of star power against institutional support.

Pascrell said that the things he’s heard on the county level about a run have been “very, very positive,” and New Jersey political strategists say Pallone has spent a lot of time lining up support from county officials.

Booker, meanwhile, would likely raise the most money in a primary, even with Pallone’s $3.5 million in the bank, strategists say.

“Booker can outraise anybody in ’14, including Frank Pallone. The issue is that Pallone can raise enough,” said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute. “The Senate seat is Democrats’ to lose in New Jersey; therefore, you don’t need to raise tons and tons of money to win.”

Murray said that he doesn’t expect Lautenberg to make a decision until after the 2013 gubernatorial election — and the outcome could determine what he chooses.

If Lautenberg were to die in office and Christie was the governor, then Christie would be the one choosing Lautenberg’s replacement. 

Murray also predicted that if the Democrat who runs against Christie — state Sen. Barbara Buono has already declared — makes a strong showing, it could have an impact on the Senate primary, too.

“That person could end up making a strong claim that they should be considered for this Senate seat,” he said. “And particularly because they were the one who decided to take on Chris Christie when Cory Booker did not.”

— Daniel Strauss contributed to this report.