Commentary Magazine

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.

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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