If the family of Frank Lautenberg had its way, U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone (d-6th) would claim the seat the late senator vacated when he died in office this spring. Calling Pallone the senator’s “go-to guy” in the House of Representatives, widow Bonnie Englebardt Lautenberg and her son, Josh, have formally endorsed Pallone and stumped with him on the campaign trail.
Yet if the polls and pundits are right, the Lautenbergs’ endorsement and veiled public digs at campaign frontrunner Cory Booker will have little effect on the outcome of the race. Even running in second place in the latest poll of likely Democratic primary voters, released by Quinnipiac University on Wednesday, Pallone trails the dynamic Newark mayor by 54 to 17 percent. In a campaign as compressed as this one, observers feel there’s little Pallone can do to make up that margin.
“It’s obviously a very short timetable for the race so it makes the advantage for the initial frontrunner that much greater,” said John Weingart, associate director, Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University. “The difficulty he and many other members of Congress have is getting to be known outside the district. So despite his long years in Congress and high visibility within his district, he’s not particularly well known. It’s a tall order.”
A Long Branch resident who represents most of Middlesex and some of Monmouth County, Pallone, the son of a police officer, was born in the town he now calls home. The 62-year-old married father of three attended Middlebury and the Tufts University Fletcher School of Diplomacy before earning a law degree from Rutgers. His ethnically diverse and residential district includes Rutgers and Monmouth University and counts New Brunswick, Asbury Park, and Perth Amboy as its urban centers. Before being elected to Congress, Pallone served two terms on Long Branch city council and two terms in the state Senate.
Pallone also suffers by running in a four-way race. Not only must he differentiate himself from Booker, whose relationship with Gov. Chris Christie he calls “troubling,” he must also make the case against Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-Essex) and fellow U.S. Rep. Rush Holt (D-12th), whose liberal voting record parallels Pallone’s.
“When you don’t have a two-way primary, whatever anti-Booker sentiment there may be gets divided,” said Jennifer Duffy, senior editor of The Cook Political Report.
Pallone has tried to distinguish himself from Booker by calling him out for skipping at least four candidates’ forums (though he did join a televised debate on August 5) and he’s criticized all three of his opponents for “lack of transparency and accountability” because they ignored his request to sign a “People’s Pledge” against outside special interest money. He also points out in a televised ad that he is the only candidate who helped President Obama write the affordable care act.
Otherwise, Pallone has kept his campaign vitriol-free and declined to comment on attack ads and mailers funded by Victor V. Scudiery, who was chairman of the Monmouth County Democratic Committee throughout most of Pallone’s political career.
Scudiery, a strong Booker supporter, says he’s looking beyond this campaign cycle and seeking to fund efforts to defeat Pallone if and when he runs for reelection to the House in 2014. Calling Pallone “unresponsive and ineffective as our Shore representative,” Scudiery’s ads accuse him of failing to protect Fort Monmouth from closure and of neglecting to work for the reopening of Sandy Hook after superstorm Sandy. However, Pallone’s legislative website trumpets efforts to lobby the National Park Service to reopen the park and heralds his assistance in securing $37 million in federal funding for its recovery.
And although Fort Monmouth’s catchment area spills into Pallone’s district, the base itself is located within the 4th Congressional District and represented by Rep. Chris Smith (D-4th). Nevertheless, in 2011, Pallone helped try to keep the base’s commissary open for two years past the base’s closing date.