Sen. Frank Lautenberg—the oldest member in Congress’ upper chamber—made big news on Thursday when he announced that he would not seek another term. The move by the 89-year-old eliminates a likely Democratic primary battle with Cory Booker, the popular mayor of Newark.
Booker said back in December that he was interested in the seat come 2014 and created a federal fundraising account to allow him to raise cash. His relationship with the veteran senator has since been prickly. But Booker released a statement praising the senator as a “champion for the people of New Jersey.”
Lautenberg didn’t exactly return the compliment, telling reporters that he’d encourage Booker to “finish the job that he has done in Newark. We still have a lot of violence, we still have a lot of inconvenience.”
He also griped, “Every day that I go to work, I go to Newark. Every day I go to work, he leaves.” The Star-Ledger points out that between January 2011 and June 2012, Booker was out of town for nearly 25% of the time.
Nonetheless, Booker is a popularity powerhouse. Polls have showed Dems prefer Booker to Lautenberg by a big margin. And through social media, national broadcast appearances to talk about how he saved a woman from a fire, personally helped snowed-in residents get out of their driveways, and even rescuing a freezing dog—Booker’s really made a name for himself.
Does that mean Newark’s mayor is a shoo-in?
Not necessarily, according to Joseph Marbach, the provost of LaSalle University and longtime New Jersey political commentator.
“Booker has certain liabilities,” he told msnbc.com, noting the mayor has been relatively friendly with Republican New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. “There could be a Democratic backlash against that…There are also ongoing employment issues in Newark that could be an Achilles heel for Booker. A year in politics [before the election heats up] can be a lifetime, so it still remains to be seen.”
There’s also the Frank Pallone and Rush Holt question. The Congressmen, have both individually expressed interest in the seat and could give Booker a run for his money if either of them decide to run.
Holt told msnbc.com that “There’s no point in being coy. I’ve made no secret in previous years that I would consider the Senate at the right time. But an expression of interest should not be taken as a campaign announcement.” Pallone also said that he’s “very interested” in the seat but would not elaborate because “today is for Sen. Lautenberg.”
In addition to fundraising, “Pallone has been positioning himself for a Senate race for a number of years, making the contacts with county chairmen and county officials to position himself high up on the ballot,” said Marbach. He added if Lautenberg decides to back another candidate, that could throw a wrench into Booker’s plans (A Lautenberg endorsement of Booker, afterall, is highly unlikely).
New Jersey Democratic Party Chairman John Wisniewski agreed that nothing is certain.
“A month in politics is a lifetime. A year is 12 lifetimes,” he told msnbc.com, adding the the Democratic Party is now focused on the midterm elections and getting presumptive gubernatorial Democratic nominee, Barbara Buono, to oust Christie next year. Wisniewski said, however, that his party is ”blessed” to have potential candidates like Pallone, Holt and Booker. ”Unwil we get done with 2013, any speclation on who the nomination will go to is nothing more or less than a wild guess.”