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Democrats Avoid Bruising Senatorial Primary in New Jersey

Democrats will have enough problems holding the Senate in 2014 due to nearly half a dozen weak incumbents in red states who benefitted from the Democratic wave in 2008 without creating their own problems. One such problem has now been averted as Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), has announced that he is retiring again. This is his second retirement from the Senate. It avoids a nasty primary between him and Newark Mayor Cory Booker, who has already said he is running for the seat, with or without Lautenberg sitting on it.

The back story here is a bit complicated. Lautenberg was CEO of Automated Data Processing for three decades, where he made a lot of money. In 1982, he decided to run for the Senate, financing his campaign with his own money. He won. He was reelected in 1988 and again in the Republican wave year of 1994. He retired from the Senate in January of 2001. He was replaced by another wealthy Democrat, Jon Corzine, the former CEO of Goldman Sachs.

A year later, it started to get interesting. In 2002, the other New Jersey senator, Bob Torricelli, won the Democratic primary and looked like he was going to cruise to reelection, when he was hit with federal corruption charges. The Democratic establishment, seeing defeat at the hands of Republican nominee Doug Forrester on the horizon, convinced Torricelli to drop out of the race. They then needed a candidate only 7 weeks before the general election so they asked Lautenberg to unretire and run for the Senate again. The Republicans sued, saying state law didn't allow a candidate who had won a primary to get off the ballot so close to the general election, but the New Jersey Supreme Court ultimately ruled that Lautenberg's name could appear on the ballot. Lautenberg, a staunch liberal with universal name recognition in very blue New Jersey, crushed Forrester. In 2008 he cruised to reelection.

So why was there a problem with him running again in 2014? No one in either party doubts that he would crush whatever sacrificial lamb the Republicans managed to find. The problem is those pesky actuaries. Lautenberg would be almost 91 at the start of a new term and 97 at the end of it. The expected number of years a 91-year-old will live is about four. In other political terms, had Lautenberg been reelected, he would probably have died in office. Then Gov. Chris Christie (R-NJ) would appoint a Republican to the seat. This scenario is probably one of the reasons that Newark Mayor Cory Booker (43) decided to challenge a popular sitting senator of his own party. With Lautenberg out of the race, Booker will most likely win a potential Democratic primary with Rep. Frank Pallone, Jr. The winner of that will easily win the general election and serve until the cows come home, keeping the seat Democratic for decades to come. A messy primary between a young up-and-coming ambitious politician and an aged, but incredibly wealthy old bull, would have greatly increased the chances of the Republicans being able to knock off the wounded primary survivor. With Lautenberg's decision to retire, that scenario won't happen.

Of the four Senate retirements so far this cycle, three appear to be motivated by the incumbent's fear of a tough reelection battle. Besides Lautenberg, Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) is retiring, no doubt in part because Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) has already announced a challenge. Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-GA) is retiring, very likely due to expected tea party challengers in the Republican primary. Only Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) is retiring despite having an easy reelection campaign ahead.

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