- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 5, 2013

When New Jersey Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg announced in February he wasn’t running for re-election next year, the path seemed cleared for Newark Mayor Cory Booker to waltz into the seat. The energetic and telegenic Democrat has strong ties with his party’s leadership, and his populist governing style made him one of the most popular politicians in the Democratic-leaning Garden State.

But with Mr. Lautenberg’s death Monday prompting Republican Gov. Chris Christie to hold special primary and general elections this year to fill the seat, Mr. Booker — who is considered likely to run for the seat — is now expected to face intraparty competition.

The election’s timing opens up the possibilities for U.S. House members — who aren’t up for re-election until 2014 — to run for the Senate slot because they can do so without having to give up their congressional seats. And while no one, including the mayor, formally has announced a candidacy to replace Mr. Lautenberg, political experts say longtime Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. is poised to jump into the race.

“His advantages don’t mean the seat is his for the taking,” Brigid Harrison, a political professor at Montclair State University in New Jersey, said of Mr. Booker. The special primary “opens up the field a little bit.”

Democratic voters far outnumber Republicans in New Jersey, so the winner of the Democratic primary in August is expected to easily win October’s general election. And with Mr. Pallone in his 14th term in the House, he has more seniority than any Democratic House member from New Jersey.

Mr. Pallone also had about $3.7 million in cash as of the latest Federal Election Commission filing — more than double Mr. Booker’s $1.6 million. The congressman also has strong connections with New Jersey’s Democratic establishment.

Yet, Mr. Booker — with better statewide name recognition than any New Jersey politician other than Mr. Christie and the state’s other senator, Robert Menendez — still is considered the favorite to win the Senate seat.

The mayor is a proficient fundraiser — a must in New Jersey, where statewide campaigns require media buys in two the nation’s most expensive markets — New York City and Philadelphia.

And as New Jersey’s highest-profile black politician, he is expected to have the upper hand in mobilizing minority turnout, Ms. Harrison said.

“It will be an important election among African-American voters and Booker will be, in my view, particularly effective at bringing urban areas out” to vote, she said. “And one of the things that Democrats have struggled with is getting those urban areas out when it’s not a presidential election.”

Other Democrats mentioned as possible entries into the Senate race are Rep. Rush Holt, who is serving his eighth term, state Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver and state Senate President Steve Sweeney.

Then there is the possibility of a wild-card celebrity candidate. “It’s not out of the realm that some hedge fund guy or some sports figure would decide to throw his name in the ring,” said Ms. Harrison, though she added the shortened election timeline diminishes the chance.

New Jersey hasn’t elected a Republican to the Senate since 1972. Mr. Christie said he intends to appoint a placeholder for Mr. Lautenberg’s seat to serve until October’s special election winner takes office. The Republican governor hasn’t named his choice, though it’s expected to be from his party.

This article was based in part on wire service reports.