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Booker, Pallone, Holt Lining Up For U.S. Senate Race

Christie decision to hold special election this year sets up Democratic battle royale.

Newark Mayor Cory Booker
Newark Mayor Cory Booker

Gov. Chris Christie’s decision yesterday to hold a special election this year for the U.S. Senate has triggered a three-way race between Newark Mayor Cory Booker, Congressman Frank Pallone and Congressman Rush Holt for the Democratic nomination to succeed the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), Democratic party leaders said last night.

Christie’s decision to set a special Senate primary for August 13 and a special Senate election October 16 gave Pallone and Holt the opportunity to run against the favored Booker without giving up their U.S. House seats if they lose, and both are taking advantage of it. While Holt was planning to run against Booker in a 2014 primary, Democratic political operatives said Pallone might not have decided to risk his House seat in what could be a tough fight, given Booker's recognition and ability to raise money.

The October 16 special election will occur just 20 days before the regularly scheduled November 5 election, with Christie be running for reelection against Sen. Barbara Buono (D-Middlesex). The two special elections will cost the state an additional $23.8 million, according to the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services.

However, Christie’s decision yesterday averted two unattractive political choices. First, holding the Senate election November 5 would shunt the governor’s race down to the second line on the ballot and allow Buono to run under a popular Democratic Senate candidate at the top of the ticket, which would most likely cut into the impressive victory margin Christie wants to bolster a potential 2016 presidential run. Second, appointing a Republican to serve until November 2014 would make national Republicans happy, but would upset independent and Democratic voters in New Jersey who might vote for his reelection and would risk a court challenge by Democrats that he could lose.

Nevertheless, the decision opened Christie up to a barrage of criticism from Democrats who charged that he was wasting tax dollars for his own political advantage. As Sen. Richard Codey (D-Essex) put it, “The decision by Governor Christie to hold a special election in October instead of November is mind boggling in every rational way. It's as if he gave the residents of this state the finger and that finger will cost $24 million.”

Christie’s decision to hold off naming a Republican to fill Lautenberg’s seat and his silence on whether he would use his political clout to marshal the GOP in support of a single candidate in the primary essentially froze the Republican Senate field yesterday, even though he said his advice to potential primary candidates was, “The gun has been fired. It’s time to go.”

Congressman Rush Holt
Congressman Rush Holt

The Democratic field, however, looks set. While Christie may very well choose a Republican state legislator to run for the Senate, no Democratic state legislator is expected to be willing to give up his seat to jump into a contest that already has three formidable candidates in Booker, Pallone and Holt.

“All three bring unique qualities that are appealing in a county as diverse as Passaic County,” John Currie, Passaic County’s Democratic chairman, said last night. “I have an executive committee, and I would invite all three of them in to meet with the committee to seek our endorsement.”

Booker, Pallone and Holt all kept official silence yesterday in respect for Lautenberg, whose memorial service is being held today in New York City, with viewing in the Capitol and burial in Arlington National Cemetery later this week. Democratic gubernatorial nominee Barbara Buono opened her Primary Night acceptance speech by praising Lautenberg as a “true progressive.”

But the political cognoscenti gathered in Edison for Buono’s primary were already looking ahead to the complexities of a compressed 10-week campaign matching three prominent Democrats able to put up multimillion-dollar war chests for a rare August 13 primary that will tax even the most sophisticated get-out-the-vote operations.

“More money will be spent per vote in this election than in any other primary with the possible exception of [Jon] Corzine’s Senate race in 2000,” one political operative predicted, noting that the three candidates would have the money for large-scale television, radio, and social media advertising and direct mail, but that it would be hard to get the attention of voters during the summer vacation months.

The Senate primary campaign also promises to provide the ideological debate over what New Jersey’s Democratic Party should stand for that most political experts expected to occur this spring in the Democratic gubernatorial primary. That ideological debate was expected to pit Buono, an avowed liberal representative of the “Democratic wing of the Democratic Party,” against a “New Democrat” like Booker or Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) who had worked on a bipartisan basis with Christie on issues like merit pay for teachers or the pension and health benefits legislation that were opposed by public employee unions.

When Democratic party leaders decided to allow Buono to run unopposed in what they regarded as a quixotic race against a Republican governor then up 40 points in the polls, that debate never occurred. However, it will occur now in the Democratic Senate primary, with Booker and Pallone as the chief protagonists.

Congressman Frank Pallone
Congressman Frank Pallone

Pallone, one of Buono’s earliest and most influential supporters, has always enjoyed strong support from both public and private sector unions, has compiled a strong environmental record, and was one of the few Democrats willing to publicly campaign for President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act.

Booker, who passed up the chance to run against Christie in a race in which he would have had the support of most Democratic party leaders, also has endorsed Buono and has campaigned with her.

But Booker also has worked closely with Christie and was the one who brought Christie together with Facebook mega-millionaire Mark Zuckerberg on the Oprah Winfrey show. Zuckerberg raised big dollars for Christie’s reelection in a California fundraiser. And it was Booker, Christie, and Zuckerberg who combined to negotiate the merit pay plan for teachers in the Newark schools that Christie has been touting.

Booker’s status as a “New Democrat” and as a champion of education reforms opposed by the New Jersey Education Association are among the reasons that he is likely to win the backing of George Norcross, the South Jersey Democratic powerbroker who exerts control or influence over seven county organizations that turn out more than 25 percent of the Democratic primary vote.

Booker can also count on home county support from Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo, the Democratic political chief who is more likely to endorse Christie or remain neutral in the governor’s race than to endorse Buono. It was Norcross and DiVincenzo, along with their proteges, Senate President Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-Essex), who combined with Christie to pass the pension and health benefits bill that increased public employee contributions and suspended collective bargaining on health benefits for four years.

Pallone can count on populous Middlesex County, the lion’s share of which he has represented in Congress since the 2002 redistricting map took effect, and his home county of Monmouth, whose shore towns he represented both in Congress and previously in the state Legislature.

“Middlesex is on board,” Assemblyman Upendra Chivukula (D-Middlesex), a Pallone supporter, said confidently.

Chivukula added that Pallone would pick up surprising support in Essex -- undoubtedly including strong pockets in Newark, where Booker has been battling with Councilman Ras Baraka and other vocal council opponents for years -- and from the Democratic leaders of Republican-controlled suburban counties who have backed Buono in her public battle with Sweeney and Oliver over her choice of Assemblyman Jason O’Donnell (D-Hudson) as party chair.

“If Rush Holt gets in, that makes it easier for Cory Booker,” Chivukula acknowledged candidly. Democrats in Holt’s home county of Mercer have no doubt that he is running.

“Rush Holt told me he was thinking about running the other day, and that was before Frank Lautenberg died,” said Assemblywoman Bonnie Watson-Coleman (D-Mercer), who said she has told candidates she will not endorse in any Senate primary. As chair of Buono’s campaign, “I need to be neutral because I need to focus on the gubernatorial campaign.”

Holt represented all or part of a dozen Middlesex County towns from the 2002 redistricting until the 2012 redistricting and represents more of Monmouth than Pallone, which cuts into support that both congressmen would be counting on if the other was not in the race.

Holt, a Princeton scientist before he won an upset victory in 1998, can count on his home county of Mercer, plus support in Hunterdon and southern Somerset counties, which he originally represented in Congress.

“Mercer will come out strong for Rush,” said Mercer County Executive Brian Hughes.

Assemblywoman Linda Greenstein (D-Middlesex), who is also supporting Holt, noted that he is “extremely popular” in her Mercer-Middlesex swing district.

Democratic analysts said the big question is whether Bergen, Passaic, and Union counties -- all major Democratic strongholds -- would unite behind a candidate. Hudson, which is bitterly divided into feuding rival camps, is likely to split over the Senate campaign as well, they said.

While Booker, Pallone, and Holt will all count on party leaders in counties whose endorsements they win to get out the vote in the middle of August, this will be that rare primary in which there is no “county line” per se where the favored candidate gets to run with all of the endorsed party nominees. Booker, Pallone, and Holt will run side by side on the same line, with the only advantage being that the endorsed candidate appears in the first column.

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