NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—U.S. Senator Frank Lautenberg's death came with nineteen months left in his six-year term, and a controversial decision announced by Governor Chris Christie has acclerated the schedule of a mounting electoral campaign to replace Lautenberg in the Senate.
The late senator passed away just one week ago, but candidates to replace him are required to submit 1,000 signatures from registered members of their political party by today at 4pm.
The accelerated timeline Christie called for, which places the special election on a Wednesday in October, has forced the hand of several politicians who were planning to seek the Senate seat when it up for a scheduled election in 2014.
Additionally, the Christie decision limits the impact the special election will have on his own re-election prospects. Another option would have been to hold both elections the same day.
In accordance with state law, Governor Chris Christie appointed his attorney general Jeff Chiesa, a Republican, to temporarily fill the seat on Thursday.
The special election will be held October 16, but first a primary election will give Republicans and Democrats a chance to select their respective candidates on August 13.
The US Constitution requires that candidates be 30 years of age, reside in New Jersey, and have been a US citizen for at least nine years.
FOUR-WAY RACE AMONG DEMOCRATS QUICKLY TAKES SHAPE
Until Lautenberg's death, Democrats had held both of the state's US Senate seats since 1982.
Congressman Frank Pallone, who represents New Brunswick and other sections of Middlesex and Monmouth Counties, had made statements suggesting he wanted to succeed the longtime Senator.
Lautenberg eventually announced he would not seek re-election in February, for health reasons. The fight to replace him had already been heating up, even before he announced he would not seek another term.
Pallone, a former State Senator and U.S. House of Representatives veteran of 25 years, will face at least three opponents from his own party in the August 13 primary election: Newark Mayor Booker, fellow Congressman Rush Holt, who represents Mercer County, and Sheila Oliver, the Speaker of the NJ Assembly, who hails from Essex County.
Republicans Steve Lonegan of Bogota and Arlieta Eck of Piscataway are expected to run against each other in the Republican primary. But the field won't be set for either race until today's 4pm petition deadline passes.
Pallone has planned a press conference for 1:30pm today at the Division of Elections, where he plans to submit his candidate petitions.
While Booker has a clear advantage in name recognition thanks to his national profile, Pallone accumulated a lot of campaign cash over his two decades in Congress and was expected to gain the endorsement of the incumbent Lautenberg.
But without Lautenberg vouching for Pallone, it will be much more difficult to get votes from Lautenberg’s supporters. But Pallone does lead in one important category: fundraising.
According to the Federal Election Commission database, Pallone has roughly $3.7 million ready to spend on a campaign, while Booker only has about $1.9 million on hand, and Holt has almost $800,000.
With the primary only about two months away, Pallone will likely have an opportunity to outspend his opponents. But whoever wins the August primary will have to go on to face a Republican in an equally expensive special election campaign two months later.
Robert Torricelli, the man who last occupied the Senate seat, told the Newark Star-Ledger that if the primary were scheduled for June 2014, as it was before Lautenberg's death, Booker would hold the advantage.
"Clearly, in a standard primary, Booker would be a favorite," Torricelli was quoted in the newspaper. "But in a low turnout, probably the lowest turnout in history, the advantage goes to someone with committed followers, an identifiable base, and that makes Pallone at least an equal candidate, if not more."
But early polls show Booker with a healthy lead, including a poll conducted by Fairleigh Dickinson University's PublicMind poll.
The poll asked self-identified Democratic voters who they preferred to win the Democratic nomination. Of the 702 people polled, 50% chose Booker, 7% favored Rush Holt, an 4% chose Pallone.
Booker even beat the late Frank Lautenberg in a similar poll by FDU in January, in which 42% of self-identified Democrat voters and Democrat-leaning voters preferred Booker over Lautenberg, while only 20% preferred the late Senator.
TENSION OVER LAUTENBERG'S SEAT BEGAN LONG AGO
Some Democrats became frustrated after Booker played coy with the his party regarding future plans as Booker turned down repeated offers to run for Governor, and instead announced his intentions of running for Lautenberg's Senate seat – before Lautenberg decided to forgo re-election.
In response to the Booker anouncement, an anonymous aide for Lautenberg called it, "a classless show of disrespect by a completely self-absorbed politician."
An anonymous aide for Pallone also criticized Booker's early moves: "Congressman Pallone and Senator Lautenberg are in the fights of their lives to get $20 billion to $30 billion back to New Jersey in Hurricane aid. The last thing they need is this distraction."
State Senator Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) said Booker’s announcement, "distracts from the governor's race, it distracts from the aid bill and it does not give respect to Senator Lautenberg."
"It's a race that's a year and a half, two years off. We have some pretty important things between now and then," Weinberg said at the time.
Now that the election is even sooner than expected, some Democrats might not forget the slight against Lautenberg – especially now that he’s deceased.
It was in January that Booker opened a Senate fundraising account while maintaining that he was only exploring options. Not very long after, though, Booker began fundraising for his campaign, establishing himself as serious opponent to Pallone.
Last month, Booker moved in on Pallone's home turf, New Jersey's 6th congressional district.
A little more than a week before the Asbury Park's council elections held on May 14th, Booker sent a letter of endorsement to Jeff Loffredo and his Forward Asbury team, reproduced in this Asbury Park Sun article.
By hijacking the spotlight for a moment in Asbury Park and endorsing winning candidates, he stands to increase his name recognition and reputation, potentially siphoning shore votes from Pallone, who, along with the now-deceased Lautenberg, has been adamant about restoring the Jersey shores post-Hurricane Sandy.
In another instance of Booker pushing Pallone into a corner, the Brick City mayor attended an event in April with Barbara Buono, a State Senator from Middlesex County whom Pallone has strongly supported as she contends for the Democratic nomination in this year’s gubernatorial election against Chris Christie.
Booker then sent out an e-mail to Democrats announcing his endorsement of Buono and asked voters to financially contribute to her campaign, as Buono needed "rapid response funds."
Booker essentially took the spotlight from Pallone, who had emceed her first campaign kickoff event in New Brunswick while pundits speculated on Booker's absence.
DRAMATIC PALLONE MOVE MAY INDICATE A MESSY CONTEST AHEAD
Last month, Pallone sent a letter to Booker accusing his office of withholding funds for AIDS patients in Newark.
According to Pallone, the Hyacinth Foundation, a New Brunswick-based non-profit AIDS assistance program that helps house and treat HIV and AIDS patients, has been footing the bill while awaiting funds from the Newark city government
Pallone claimed the city currently owes the organization $124,000 in federal funds and will owe $147,000 by the end of May.
"This is simply unacceptable," the longtime Congressman wrote in the letter.
Booker’s team remained resilient though.
Spokesman James Allen responded that nothing was out of the ordinary: "In fact, the Hyacinth funding is on track to be approved shortly – and months earlier than last year," Allen said.
Despite the clear attack, Booker didn’t return fire. Instead his team offered Pallone an olive branch.
"We look forward to working in good faith with Representative Pallone on Hyacinth funding and the other important issues," Allen said.
Now with a primary showdown in just over two months, and tensions running high, the gloves might come off with just a little provocation.
Pallone could self-destruct his own campaign if he’s too negative towards Booker, and since Booker seems to be in the lead, he will probably be reluctant to sling mud back at Pallone.
Still, Pallone might just be able to turn the tide.
The Newark Star-Ledger revealed that that many have become disenchanted with Booker after learning he spent 119 days "out of state and the New York City area" over an eighteen-month period.
City spokeswoman Esmeralda Diaz Cameron tried to explain: "Even when Mayor Booker is not physically in Newark, he is still on the job; the vast majority of time spent outside of Newark is used to bring new resources, opportunities, jobs, ideas and innovation back to Newark."
While this could easily provide ammunition to his opponents, Booker said in an event kicking off his campaign this weekend that he intends to run a positive campaign without negative attacks.
His comments echoed those he made to a PolitickerNJ reporter, when asked about a potential campaign against Buono for Governor.
"Should [Buono] and I run against each other, I think it would be a really good race in which we would be able to provide contrast. It would be a race about substantive solutions, not personalities. We're not slash and burn politicians. We wouldn't destroy each other on our way to being the last man standing to go up against Chris Christie."