Lautenberg, Senate's Oldest Member, Says He Will Retire

New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg announced to supporters in his hometown of Paterson, N.J., on Friday that he will not seek reelection to a sixth term next year, when he turns 90.

Although he plans to continue working through the end of his current Senate term, he said he won't run again, but added jokingly, "I'm praying that something goes wrong and I have to." It was a reference to 2000, when he retired for the first time but was drafted back into politics two years later to assume the seat of his scandal-plagued rival Sen. Robert Torricelli.

There's little doubt that Lautenberg's retirement this time will be permanent.  He's the oldest member of the Senate and its last surviving World War II veteran.  Throughout his three decades-long career, he's been a staunch liberal voice, advocating for tougher gun control, environmental protection and more support for Amtrak. Among his key accomplishments, he wrote the bills that changed the legal drinking age to 21, banned smoking on airplanes and created the domestic violence gun ban. 

But he's slowed down considerably in recent years, due not just to his age but to a 2010 diagnosis of non-Hodgkin Lymphoma, for which he was successfully treated. 

He had been facing growing pressure to step aside, with some Democrats noting that if he were to die in office, Governor Chris Christie would likely name a Republican successor to serve out the rest of his term. 

Newark Mayor Cory Booker also announced last year that he was exploring a run for the seat, which many observers interpreted as a move to push Lautenberg to step aside.  Recent polls have shown Booker with an advantage in the race. 

The most recent survey, conducted by Monmouth University and released Thrusday, showed Booker with a 15-point lead over Lautenberg in a potential contest. Though 34 percent of respondents said they thought Lautenberg's advanced age was a liability, only 39 percent guessed that he was more than 80-years old.

Lautenberg's exit clears the field for a likely primary race with Booker the favored candidate.  Some political scientists say Booker could face a considerable challenge, however, from southern Congressman Frank Pallone, who's expressed interest in the seat. Other possible entrants into the race include Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver and Senate President Stephen Sweeney.