A wide-open U.S. Senate race with no incumbent kicked off today after New Jersey Democrat Frank Lautenberg, the chamber’s oldest member and last veteran of World War II, opted not to run again.
Traveling to Paterson, his birthplace, the 89-year-old said he won’t seek a sixth term in 2014, capping a three-decade Senate career. Would-be successors began lining up bids to replace him months ago, when Newark Mayor Cory Booker, 43, said Dec. 20 he was exploring a run for the seat.
“The Booker announcement clearly put a number of political challenges in the face of the senator and his future on the table, but the decision was his,” said Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute of State Politics at Rider University in Lawrenceville. “There’s been nothing in Frank Lautenberg’s long career that indicates he gets pushed around by anybody.”
Booker, a rising star in the Democratic Party, may have to contend with New Jersey Senate President Stephen Sweeney of West Deptford, the state’s highest-ranking Democratic lawmaker, and U.S. Representative Frank Pallone for his party’s nomination. Both have expressed interest in the post. It will be the first race for an open Senate seat in the Garden State since 2002. No Republicans have said they might make a bid for the office.
Lautenberg is the third Senate Democrat to announce he will retire after 2014. Senators Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia and Tom Harkin of Iowa also said they won’t run again. Democrats, who control 55 of the 100 Senate positions, will likely have an easier time retaining Lautenberg’s seat next year, said Nathan Gonzales, a deputy editor who follows the Senate for the Rothenberg Political Report.
The non-partisan newsletter and website based in Washington rates the seat “safe” for Democrats, even after Lautenberg’s decision to retire.
“Republicans have not shown an ability to win a United States Senate seat” from New Jersey, Gonzales said. Clifford Case was the last Republican elected to the post from the state, in 1972.
Booker led Lautenberg 51 percent to 30 percent in a Quinnipiac University poll released Jan. 23. While half of New Jersey voters approved of Lautenberg’s job performance, 71 percent said his age made it too difficult for him to do the work of a U.S. senator, according to the poll.
Lautenberg won his first election to the post in 1982 partly by seizing on the age of his Republican opponent, 72- year-old Millicent Fenwick. He called Fenwick, a four-term U.S. House member, a “national monument” in that campaign.
While Newark’s mayor made the first move and registered well in the Quinnipiac poll, the election is almost two years away.
“I cannot believe that, after watching Booker for the last few weeks, he gets a free ride” from fellow Democrats to his party’s nomination, said Jennifer Duffy, senior editor of the Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan Washington-based political news service. “The national stage is a little bigger” than where Booker has performed as a mayor, she said.
The question is whether the national Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has “attached their star to Booker yet or are they going to see what develops,” Duffy said.
Pallone, 61, said in an interview that he has “always been interested in running for the Senate and I’m going to continue to explore it, but this is his day,” referring to Lautenberg.
Booker and Sweeney, 53, didn’t respond to telephone calls seeking comment on the race. Another prominent Democrat potentially eying the seat is U.S. Representative Robert Andrews, a 55-year-old Democrat from Haddon Heights.
“We’re going to see a lot of political wrangling here for this seat,” said Brigid Harrison, who teaches law and government at Montclair State University. “There’s a lot of people waiting in the wings.”
Lautenberg was known best in Washington as an advocate for New Jersey, Harrison said by telephone.
“He has been a champion for New Jersey,” said Senator Robert Menendez, a Democrat first elected in 2006. “I am sure he will spend the next two years doing exactly that.”
President Barack Obama also praised Lautenberg for his work. “Frank has fought tirelessly for workers, veterans, members of our military and their families, and immigrants,” Obama said in a statement.
“Senator Lautenberg has been a strong model of leadership and service to me since before I even considered entering elected office,” Booker said in a statement. “Since I have been mayor, he has been an invaluable partner in so many of Newark’s recent accomplishments and successes.”
While he won’t seek re-election, Lautenberg said he won’t slack off.
“I think it was time with family: my children, my daughters and my grandchildren, live all over the country and I want to spend more time with them,” Lautenberg told reporters today.
He said he’ll spend his remaining time on a “two-year mission to pass new gun-safety laws, protect children from toxic chemicals and create more opportunities for working families in New Jersey.”
Enlisting in the U.S. Army at 18, Lautenberg served in the signal corps during World War II. After the war, he studied economics at Columbia University, receiving his degree from then-Columbia President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Lautenberg was a co-founder and former chief executive officer of Automatic Data Processing Inc., a payroll-services company based in Roseland, New Jersey.
He first won election to the Senate in 1982 and served three terms. He decided not to seek re-election in 2000.
Two years later, Lautenberg came out of retirement to step in as a candidate for the seat held by Democrat Robert Torricelli after the senator withdrew from a re-election campaign amid an ethics inquiry. Lautenberg won a fifth full term in 2008.
In the Senate, he focused on transportation issues and sponsored a 2008 law overhauling Amtrak, the U.S. inter-city passenger rail service. He authored bills that increased transit spending in New Jersey by half and highway money by 30 percent. He also secured $500 million for New Jersey Transit’s Secaucus Junction Station, which bears his name.
Lautenberg and Republican Governor Chris Christie feuded in 2010 over a proposed commuter rail tunnel under the Hudson River to New York City. Christie killed the project. About a year ago, the governor called the senator a “hack” and said he should step down in response to his criticism of a cost-cutting plan to merge state universities.
“You’d think by the time you reach 88 years old, you’d realize the country should come first, that your state should come first,” Christie said at the time. “Some say he should retire. Let me tell you: I don’t disagree.”
The two put aside past differences after Hurricane Sandy, cooperating in lobbying the federal government for assistance in rebuilding New Jersey’s devastated coastline.
“Frank Lautenberg and I have had our differences through the years, but I’ve always respected him for his tenacity,” Christie said in a statement. “I will always be grateful for his doggedness in fighting with me and the delegation to ensure congressional passage of an aid package after Hurricane Sandy.”
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