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N.J. Democrats’ Booker-Induced Chaos

For New Jersey Republicans, one of the disappointing aspects of Chris Christie’s first term as governor has been the lack of intrastate coattails. Christie has notched several impressive policy victories for Republicans, but the state GOP has been unable to turn those victories into success at the ballot box in either house of the state legislature, let alone a Senate challenge to Bob Menendez. That makes Christie’s policy success all the more impressive: unlike in Michigan and Wisconsin, Christie’s victories over the public sector unions came without a Republican legislature.

Christie’s one-man conservative show in New Jersey, along with Christie’s high approval rating, is sowing more internal discord within the state’s Democratic Party–and at the highest level yet. Christie’s popularity after his handling of the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy was enough to convince rising star Cory Booker not to challenge Christie for the governor’s office later this year. But that means that Booker, whose social-media heavy act in Newark is beginning to wear thin, needs something else to do. So he announced that he’s exploring a run for the Senate seat currently occupied by Frank Lautenberg. The latter’s term is up in 2014, and Lautenberg is thought to be leaning toward retirement. But he hasn’t announced that yet, and doesn’t seem to be at all pleased by Booker’s decision to try and push him out the door. And there’s another problem: if Lautenberg were to step down, it was widely expected that his chosen successor would be Frank Pallone, a congressman from central New Jersey who has been laying the groundwork for a Senate run.

But now Booker appears ready to run whether Lautenberg vacates the seat or not. And that may bring on a third problem (Booker’s quite the trouble maker): whereas Pallone would not have considered challenging Lautenberg in a primary, if Booker challenges Lautenberg then Pallone will almost surely have to throw his hat in the ring, since a three-way primary race might be his only shot to beat Booker.

Thus Booker’s announcement may spur a primary free-for-all that stands a good chance of flattening Lautenberg to bring his career to a rather ignominious end. So it’s no surprise to read this:

Booker said Monday that he still hopes to talk to Lautenberg.

“We’ve reached out to him a number of times,” said Booker, whose second term as mayor ends in 2014. “In fact, I had a plane trip going down to meet with him, but unfortunately with a lot of the challenges going down in Washington, he had to cancel the meeting.”

There is some (recent) history here. Lautenberg was aware of a possible Booker challenge last year, and then came Booker’s criticism of President Obama’s attacks on Mitt Romney’s tenure at Bain Capital, which Booker called “nauseating.” Lautenberg pounced:

“It’s a terrible blow, in my view, for President Obama,” he said. He likened the remark to “sabotage” and said Booker needs to do more to rectify his mistake.

Booker has tried several times since Sunday to walk back the remarks. On “The Rachel Maddow Show” on Monday night, he expressed anger at Republicans who have turned his statement into campaign fodder.

As for a possible primary run against Booker in 2014, Lautenberg said “he’s welcome to do it” but that his remarks did him great damage.

“Now we have a different record,” said a smiling Lautenberg, who is considering seeking another term.

If Booker does indeed run in 2014, Pallone’s best chance is probably if Lautenberg runs as well, thereby diluting some of Booker’s North Jersey support. If Lautenberg steps down and Booker and Pallone vie for the seat, Booker would most likely be the favorite, though it’s early to gauge just how much headway Pallone has been able to make with county party chairs behind the scenes. Nonetheless, while state Republicans may not be gaining at the ballot box, they have to be enjoying the fact that their current governor is a Republican with such high approval ratings that the state’s top Democratic politicians are at each other’s throats just to avoid challenging Christie.