Commentary Magazine


Topic: Frank Lautenberg

Cory Booker and the “Celebrity” Charge

The evergreen electoral strategy in which an underdog candidate tries to turn his opponent’s greatest strength into a weakness is high risk and high reward. The reward is obvious enough, if successful. But the risk is that the effort will simply remind the public why they liked the candidate in the first place. Newark Mayor Cory Booker’s opponents in the Democratic Senate primary in New Jersey are ready to take that chance.

A super-PAC called the American Commitment Action Fund has released a tough ad echoing criticism Booker has heard before: his commitment to a national profile has come at the expense of the city he is supposed to be governing. But recent polling suggests the ad might end up reinforcing Booker’s appeal among Democratic primary voters. The ad itself, running nearly two minutes, casts Booker as an absentee mayor who consolidates power in his hands while weakening the city government around him:

 

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The evergreen electoral strategy in which an underdog candidate tries to turn his opponent’s greatest strength into a weakness is high risk and high reward. The reward is obvious enough, if successful. But the risk is that the effort will simply remind the public why they liked the candidate in the first place. Newark Mayor Cory Booker’s opponents in the Democratic Senate primary in New Jersey are ready to take that chance.

A super-PAC called the American Commitment Action Fund has released a tough ad echoing criticism Booker has heard before: his commitment to a national profile has come at the expense of the city he is supposed to be governing. But recent polling suggests the ad might end up reinforcing Booker’s appeal among Democratic primary voters. The ad itself, running nearly two minutes, casts Booker as an absentee mayor who consolidates power in his hands while weakening the city government around him:

 

           

As I wrote last year, one estimate found Booker spending one out of every five days out of state, and the line in the ad that to see Booker you’d have to turn on Meet the Press will surely resonate with some voters. And it’s understandable that his opponents would seek to turn Booker’s major advantage in a brief primary season–his national profile–into a weakness. But the latest Monmouth University poll of likely Democratic primary voters has some bad news for his rivals, Congressmen Frank Pallone and Rush Holt.

To say Booker is polling well would be an understatement. He gets 49 percent of the vote overall, and his nearest competitor is Pallone with 12 percent. And he may just be turning the tables on his opponents, neutralizing their natural advantages while retaining his own:

Among four factors offered in the poll, experience to get things done in Washington was most often named as the most important: 34 percent of primary voters said so. Second most important was being true to core Democratic values, at 22 percent.

Holt and Pallone are Washington veterans and have claimed to be the “true” Democratic progressives in the race. But among voters who labeled experience as the most important factor, Booker won 42 percent support, compared with 15 percent for Pallone, 10 percent for Holt, and 4 percent for Oliver.

Last month, I mentioned the reason Booker would benefit from having Holt in the race. Pallone was already planning to run, having been Lautenberg’s preferred successor anyway. But the fact that Holt threw his hat in the ring only further solidified Booker’s advantage. Holt and Pallone represent adjacent House districts. As such, they will be competing for the same voter base. Yet the Monmouth poll makes clear that even without Holt in the race, Pallone couldn’t take those voters for granted:

Even in Central New Jersey, where Pallone and Holt have their political bases, Booker got 39 percent of the likely primary vote, compared with 19 percent for Pallone and 16 percent for Holt.

That prompted a note of incredulity from Monmouth’s polling director Patrick Murray: “Cory Booker’s lead appears to be impregnable. There is very little in the poll that shows a path for the other candidates to overtake him.” Murray then revealed why the super-PAC ad may redound to Booker’s benefit:

While Booker has often chafed at the “celebrity” label his opponents have tried to slap on him, his overwhelming name recognition is a key factor in his polling and fund-raising lead.

“At the end of the day, New Jersey Democrats would be satisfied with any of these candidates as their nominee for U.S. Senate. They are simply going for the one they feel they know best,” Murray said.

That about sums it up: N.J. Democrats really don’t see much difference between the candidates, but Booker is famous and popular. In addition, Booker’s national profile may convince some N.J. Democrats that his election could end up being a boon to the state’s influence in a way electing Pallone or Holt would not, since Booker would not suffer the anonymity common to freshman senators who don’t have the seniority (or immediate presidential aspirations) they would usually need to receive invitations to the Sunday morning talk shows.

The primary is three weeks away, and that is not much time to make up this ground. There is plenty of legitimate criticism of Booker’s use of social media to enable his reputation to reach heights nationally that it doesn’t locally. (Though it would certainly be unfair to claim that his Twitter activity is a complete waste of time; in the age of big government, there is something to be said for a responsive executive who is easy to contact and joyfully engages his constituents.) But polling shows that name recognition is the surest way to win a primary that voters see as mostly ideologically meaningless. Casting Booker as a celebrity is unlikely to deter those voters.

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Booker Gets a Boost in Quest for Senate

Chris Christie and Newark Mayor Cory Booker make light of their friendly competition for the media spotlight, but the rivalry was never too convincing because their interests have so often aligned. As rising stars in opposing parties forced to share the stage in New Jersey, they could be expected to clash often. But the two have found common ground on education, economic issues, and crime policy, and most importantly have an interest in avoiding having to run against each other.

And when Senator Frank Lautenberg passed away this week, opening up a seat Booker was planning to run for next year, their interests aligned once again. New Jersey election law seemed to allow for a special election to fill this seat either this year or next. Calling the election for 2014 would have allowed Christie to avoid running alongside another high-profile candidate during his reelection campaign and would give the Republican Party a head start at holding the seat next year. That would have been best for Booker as well, since he doesn’t have a statewide campaign apparatus in place and would like to have the extra year to raise money. It would also give him a foil in the Republican senator he’d be running against, which would likely be an easier target than Christie.

But as Jonathan alluded to yesterday, Democrats would have challenged postponing the election until 2014 and, given the liberal state courts, would almost certainly have won. That would have been a setback for Christie, so he announced he was scheduling the special election for this fall. He had the option of setting the election to coincide with his own or to take place earlier. Christie doesn’t want to run on the same day that Booker is on the ballot, and once again this was also preferable for Booker, who didn’t want to risk facing a candidate who could run on Christie’s coattails.

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Chris Christie and Newark Mayor Cory Booker make light of their friendly competition for the media spotlight, but the rivalry was never too convincing because their interests have so often aligned. As rising stars in opposing parties forced to share the stage in New Jersey, they could be expected to clash often. But the two have found common ground on education, economic issues, and crime policy, and most importantly have an interest in avoiding having to run against each other.

And when Senator Frank Lautenberg passed away this week, opening up a seat Booker was planning to run for next year, their interests aligned once again. New Jersey election law seemed to allow for a special election to fill this seat either this year or next. Calling the election for 2014 would have allowed Christie to avoid running alongside another high-profile candidate during his reelection campaign and would give the Republican Party a head start at holding the seat next year. That would have been best for Booker as well, since he doesn’t have a statewide campaign apparatus in place and would like to have the extra year to raise money. It would also give him a foil in the Republican senator he’d be running against, which would likely be an easier target than Christie.

But as Jonathan alluded to yesterday, Democrats would have challenged postponing the election until 2014 and, given the liberal state courts, would almost certainly have won. That would have been a setback for Christie, so he announced he was scheduling the special election for this fall. He had the option of setting the election to coincide with his own or to take place earlier. Christie doesn’t want to run on the same day that Booker is on the ballot, and once again this was also preferable for Booker, who didn’t want to risk facing a candidate who could run on Christie’s coattails.

And Booker received some more good news: Democratic Representative Rush Holt will run for the seat in this summer’s primary. That helps Booker because the primary was set to pit Booker against Representative Frank Pallone, a central-Jersey congressman who was long considered the rightful successor to Lautenberg–plans that were upended when Booker decided he didn’t want to challenge Christie for governor and had to find another seat to run for in the meantime.

Although Booker would still have been considered the favorite against Pallone, the contest wasn’t too lopsided. Booker has higher name recognition, Pallone a war chest and active campaign infrastructure. Having the election next year would have given Booker the opportunity to match or even surpass Pallone’s fundraising, but it would also have given Pallone a year to build up his name recognition statewide. Pallone also might have started advertising earlier than Booker, and at least had the chance to set the tempo of the campaign.

But the rules of the special election don’t require House members to resign their seats to run, so Holt sees no risk in throwing his name in the hat. Democratic Congressman Rob Andrews was reportedly considering running as well, but Maggie Haberman reports that he is out. Pallone and Holt represent adjoining districts, which means they share representation of several New Jersey counties (and even one town, as of the last redistricting). It’s fair to say they will be competing for many of the same voters who would otherwise be part of their electoral base in a statewide election, and will have to spend more time and resources fighting for voters close to home, leaving fewer resources available to expand their campaign presence across the state.

As for Christie, he has not yet made any announcements about a possible interim senator, but the calculus hasn’t changed much from Monday. If not for his age (78), popular former governor Tom Kean Sr. would be an attractive pick but it’s unlikely he would want to run to keep the seat, leaving his son, Tom Kean Jr., a choice that would rankle few feathers and may give the GOP a fighting chance at keeping the seat (though it would be an uphill battle against Booker). The fact that the interim appointment would only be for a few months and would have to be defended right away will probably convince some other possible contenders (such as Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno) to take a pass on the seat.

All that means Booker will have less competition on the GOP side and more competition on the Democratic side, both of which should be expected to help his already favorable chances of succeeding Lautenberg.

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The Poster Children for Term Limits

The death of Frank Lautenberg is being mourned this week as more than just the loss of the longtime liberal senator from New Jersey. Lautenberg was the last surviving veteran of World War II to serve in the Senate and his passing is the pretext for an orgy of “Greatest Generation” tributes that feed on the nostalgia for the era that produced the people who grew up during the Great Depression and then won the war against the Nazis and Imperial Japan. Writing as the son of a veteran of that war who passed away more than a decade ago, I believe the plaudits for that generation are well deserved, especially when you compare their achievement to the less dramatic record of the baby-boomers who followed them. But the fact that so many of these veterans lingered on in Congress for so long is not exactly a sign of health for our political system.

That’s the point that Tom Bevan makes today at RealClearPolitics.com and its one worth pondering. The ability of people like Lautenberg and Representative John Dingell, who will break the record for the longest-serving member of Congress on Friday, to hang on into their old age isn’t so much testimony to the nation’s desire to make use of the wisdom of our elders as it is to the way the system is still rigged to help incumbents. It’s also worth asking whether it is long past time for us to realize that reliance on the New Deal paradigm and those who still buy into it is one of contemporary Washington’s biggest problems.

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The death of Frank Lautenberg is being mourned this week as more than just the loss of the longtime liberal senator from New Jersey. Lautenberg was the last surviving veteran of World War II to serve in the Senate and his passing is the pretext for an orgy of “Greatest Generation” tributes that feed on the nostalgia for the era that produced the people who grew up during the Great Depression and then won the war against the Nazis and Imperial Japan. Writing as the son of a veteran of that war who passed away more than a decade ago, I believe the plaudits for that generation are well deserved, especially when you compare their achievement to the less dramatic record of the baby-boomers who followed them. But the fact that so many of these veterans lingered on in Congress for so long is not exactly a sign of health for our political system.

That’s the point that Tom Bevan makes today at RealClearPolitics.com and its one worth pondering. The ability of people like Lautenberg and Representative John Dingell, who will break the record for the longest-serving member of Congress on Friday, to hang on into their old age isn’t so much testimony to the nation’s desire to make use of the wisdom of our elders as it is to the way the system is still rigged to help incumbents. It’s also worth asking whether it is long past time for us to realize that reliance on the New Deal paradigm and those who still buy into it is one of contemporary Washington’s biggest problems.

The America that produced the “greatest generation” was one that bought into the idea that big government was our only lifeline in a world beset by economic devastation as well as murderous foreign dictators. The social safety net established by Franklin Roosevelt during the 1930s has become the foundation of a national political consensus that stopped being a matter of debate decades ago. But while times and the challenges facing the country have changed, a lot of the people leading the country did not.

As Bevan notes, Dingell, who succeeded his father, has won 29 consecutive terms in a deep blue Michigan district where he has rarely faced a serious opponent. As with many other congressional dinosaurs, Dingell’s survival says more about the power of gerrymandering (which both parties abuse every chance they get) and the way such veterans can use their power to amass campaign funds and employ patronage to buy local support than it does about his personal appeal.

Term limits are a debatable measure for Congress since it can be argued that it takes a while for a new member of the House or Senate to figure out what they’re doing and become effective. But Dingell is the poster child for those who advocate that those limits are the only way to ensure that Congress is not populated by political lifers rather than citizens with experience of the world in which the rest of us live.

Of course, in contrast to Dingell, Lautenberg came to politics late after a successful business career. But, like Dingell, the senator remained mired in the political ideology of the past and was, like many of his colleagues, locked into the old paradigm in which no one ever totaled up the costs for entitlement spending. While Lautenberg’s ADP company helped private businesses control costs and payroll, he and more than a few other “Greatest Generation” liberal pols, who often seemed to act as if it was still 1938, built up a national debt that subsequent generations will struggle to pay off.

To say this is not to diminish the achievements of that generation or to detract from the record of some World War II heroes who had long, honorable and useful careers in the Capitol like the recently deceased Daniel Inouye. There was also something to be said for a generation of politicians that had served in the armed forces, something that is increasingly rare more than 40 years after we switched from a draft to an all-volunteer military. Each politician should be judged on their own merits no matter what their chronological age, but the ability of politicians to hang on long after their best-use date has expired is an ongoing problem in Congress.

Though on average we are living longer than we used to and remaining productive at ages when Americans were usually long retired or dead, there is something slightly pathetic about a political system that recycles people in this way. We should honor Lautenberg’s service, but let’s hope that in the decades to come the presence of aged, out-of-touch and largely ineffective politicians in the halls of Congress will become a rarity rather than commonplace. 

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Christie in Trouble? He’s in the Catbird Seat

Conventional wisdom tells us that when we get lemons we should make lemonade, and that is exactly what the mainstream liberal media is doing today as they contemplate the loss of a Democratic seat in the Senate with the death of Frank Lautenberg. This gives New Jersey Governor Chris Christie the chance to do what every governor longs for: appoint a U.S. senator. Yet if you read the New York Times today, you’d think Christie was the real victim of this turn of events. The headline on the story: “Death of Senator Places Christie in Difficult Spot” captures the gist of the piece, the conceit of which is the premise that by being forced to name a Republican to sit in the Senate, the governor has been given a hopeless choice between lessening his chances for re-election this November or throwing away any hope of being the GOP presidential nominee in 2016. The Washington Post is a bit less dire when it describes his dilemma as a “tough choice.”

Yet while Christie does have a complex set of options before him, the idea that he is in any danger is absurd. Rather than being pushed into a corner, Christie is sitting pretty. There is little chance that any of the possible choices he has been given could possibly endanger his re-election. Nor is it likely that he will pick anyone that will so embitter national Republicans as to diminish his chances in 2016. What Christie does have is the chance to further enhance his power and influence, both locally and nationally. Far from hurting Christie, Lautenberg’s death 17 months before his seat would have been up for grabs in the midterm elections focuses the political world on the governor, and that is exactly what he likes.

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Conventional wisdom tells us that when we get lemons we should make lemonade, and that is exactly what the mainstream liberal media is doing today as they contemplate the loss of a Democratic seat in the Senate with the death of Frank Lautenberg. This gives New Jersey Governor Chris Christie the chance to do what every governor longs for: appoint a U.S. senator. Yet if you read the New York Times today, you’d think Christie was the real victim of this turn of events. The headline on the story: “Death of Senator Places Christie in Difficult Spot” captures the gist of the piece, the conceit of which is the premise that by being forced to name a Republican to sit in the Senate, the governor has been given a hopeless choice between lessening his chances for re-election this November or throwing away any hope of being the GOP presidential nominee in 2016. The Washington Post is a bit less dire when it describes his dilemma as a “tough choice.”

Yet while Christie does have a complex set of options before him, the idea that he is in any danger is absurd. Rather than being pushed into a corner, Christie is sitting pretty. There is little chance that any of the possible choices he has been given could possibly endanger his re-election. Nor is it likely that he will pick anyone that will so embitter national Republicans as to diminish his chances in 2016. What Christie does have is the chance to further enhance his power and influence, both locally and nationally. Far from hurting Christie, Lautenberg’s death 17 months before his seat would have been up for grabs in the midterm elections focuses the political world on the governor, and that is exactly what he likes.

It’s true that choosing a senator makes the person deciding the appointment one friend—the nominee—and a lot of enemies in all the people who aren’t picked. But the New Jersey Republican Party is not a team of equals. Christie’s popularity and power dwarfs that of everyone else. At this point he can pick anyone he wants and need fear no repercussions at home.

Nor is there much chance that national conservatives will hold it against him if he nominates a moderate Republican since there really aren’t very many conservatives of stature in the state to choose from. Indeed, as much as many conservatives around the nation resent Christie for his dalliances with President Obama and criticism of the Republican leadership in the House of Representatives, the governor is, in fact, very much a conservative in the context of New Jersey politics. So long as Christie picks someone who will vote with the Senate GOP caucus for as long as they are in the seat, he won’t suffer for it.

The question of the timing of the special election to replace Lautenberg is tricky and could potentially create some problems for Christie, who is up for re-election this year. The Republicans would prefer to hold the election in 2014 and let Christie’s pick hold the seat for a year and a half, but Christie won’t do anything to cloud his image in this way. If the Senate vote is held this November, it raises the possibility that a groundswell for popular Newark Mayor Corey Booker—the likely Democratic nominee—could increase turnout and make it harder for Christie to win by a landslide or use his coattails to help the GOP make big gains in the New Jersey legislature. But if the two elections are held together it’s the Democrats who should worry. It’s been a few decades since a Republican won a Senate seat in New Jersey, but having a political dynamo like Christie with strong bipartisan support gives the GOP its best chance to win an upset. If Christie picks an attractive candidate to run with him, Democrats have to know they will be in for a much tougher fight than if the governor wasn’t on the ballot. If the election is held at another time, no one will blame Christie if the Democrats win in what is a very blue seat.

Far from hurting the governor, his choice gives him another opportunity to demonstrate his political mastery over his state. Whether his choice holds the seat or not, a good pick who is able to run a competitive campaign will only make Christie look good. Moreover, the process that will play out now will give the public another opportunity to see Christie at his best. Just as the chaotic manner with which former New York Governor David Patterson chose Kirsten Gillibrand to the Senate to replace Hillary Clinton in 2009 showed what a lousy executive he was, a sober and well-thought out selection process followed by a reasonable pick of a political ally will demonstrate Christie’s ability to lead.

Though liberals are claiming today that Lautenberg’s death creates a headache for Christie, that’s just spin. The potential gains for him far outweigh the possible losses. Barring his pick going completely off the rails in office, Christie’s choices are all good and the national focus on Trenton only enhances his national standing as one of his party’s leading figures. The odds are, he won’t hurt himself in any way and will help his party at home and in Washington.

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Lautenberg’s Passing and Christie’s Choice

The sad news out of New Jersey today is that longtime Senator Frank Lautenberg has died at the age of 89 of complications from viral pneumonia. Lautenberg had battled cancer and was serving his fifth (non-consecutive) and final term in the Senate. He was the last remaining World War II veteran in the Senate, having served until 1946.

Lautenberg, the son of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, was active in facilitating Jewish immigration from the former Soviet Union, most notably with the Lautenberg Amendment of 1989, which made it easier to claim refugee status. The law helped not only Jews from Eastern Europe but persecuted minorities worldwide. The Jewish community in the U.S. and abroad has benefited enormously from Lautenberg’s philanthropic generosity, for which he was honored May 29 by Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life. As those who knew him can attest, Lautenberg’s charitable giving was matched by a personal graciousness that never left him even after his health did.

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The sad news out of New Jersey today is that longtime Senator Frank Lautenberg has died at the age of 89 of complications from viral pneumonia. Lautenberg had battled cancer and was serving his fifth (non-consecutive) and final term in the Senate. He was the last remaining World War II veteran in the Senate, having served until 1946.

Lautenberg, the son of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, was active in facilitating Jewish immigration from the former Soviet Union, most notably with the Lautenberg Amendment of 1989, which made it easier to claim refugee status. The law helped not only Jews from Eastern Europe but persecuted minorities worldwide. The Jewish community in the U.S. and abroad has benefited enormously from Lautenberg’s philanthropic generosity, for which he was honored May 29 by Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life. As those who knew him can attest, Lautenberg’s charitable giving was matched by a personal graciousness that never left him even after his health did.

New Jersey electoral law gives the sitting governor the ability to appoint a temporary senator to fill the seat until a special election can be held, likely in November. As Governor Chris Christie is a Republican, speculation will begin immediately on whom he will appoint to the seat. One option is State Senator Joe Kyrillos, who lost a bid to unseat the state’s other senator, Bob Menendez, last year.

Whoever fills the seat temporarily won’t have much of a head start in defending it against the Democratic nominee, who was expected to be Newark Mayor Cory Booker in 2014. That means name recognition and a fundraising network will be crucial–factors that would seem to make Tom Kean Jr., a state senator and the son of Tom Kean Sr., the popular former two-term New Jersey governor who also chaired the 9/11 Commission, a possible choice. Kean Jr. ran against Menendez in 2006 and lost by nine points. The Keans are moderate Republicans with deep roots in New Jersey.

New Jersey’s few Republican congressional districts are mostly safe districts, so a member of the House would be unlikely to give up his seat for a long-shot Senate run–though Chris Smith and Scott Garrett would be the two such Republicans with the name recognition and fundraising who might be tempted. Another possibility would be Jon Runyan, the former professional football player who joined Congress in 2011 and won reelection last year.

Runyan’s district–which abuts Chris Smith’s–was traditionally a Republican district under longtime congressman Jim Saxton, though a Democrat succeeded Saxton briefly before Runyan won the seat back for Republicans. He may end up solidifying his hold on that district, but at the moment he is more vulnerable than Garrett or Smith. (It’s also doubtful New Jerseyans statewide would hold his Philadelphia Eagles career against him, but he might want to throw on a Giants or Jets cap if he runs for the Senate just to be sure.)

One aspect of this to keep in mind is the fact that the Senate election may run alongside Christie’s gubernatorial election. If Christie had already won reelection, he would be free to appoint a conservative that would energize the base and win him plaudits, even if grudgingly, from conservatives around the country. But he doesn’t want to give Democrats any issue for the fall campaign that would damage the reputation for bipartisanship he has so carefully cultivated. I wouldn’t bet on a Tea Partier, then, nor would I expect him to appoint a loose cannon or someone with no chance to make a respectable showing. This raises the possibility that he could appoint Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno, since he has already run a tandem election with her, but it would also tie him more closely to the fate of the seat.

Kean (the younger) probably fits the bill. Even on the (seemingly remote) possibility the election could be put off until next year, Christie’s interim appointment would still be made during Christie’s reelection campaign, making Kean the most likely choice. There is the outside chance Christie could appoint a Democrat (like Booker) to avoid having to run alongside any Republican so as not to take any chances. But that would almost surely put him permanently on the outs with the national party’s base and wouldn’t be worth the trouble.

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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.

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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.

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