Sarah Gonzalez, Reporter, WNYC/NJPR
Sarah Gonzalez is the northern New Jersey enterprise reporter for WNYC and NJPR.
The death of Senator Frank Lautenberg on Monday began a scramble in New Jersey’s political world to figure out how the seat will be filled.
Governor Chris Christie announced Tuesday the state will hold a special election on October 16, 2013. The decision has thrown a wrench into Newark Mayor Cory Booker’s plans to run for the seat.
Back in December, Booker announced his intentions to run for the U.S. Senate seat in 2014. And he made a promise to Newark.
“Let there be no doubt, I will complete my full second term as mayor of Newark, New Jersey,” Booker said. “There are transformative development projects coming to Newark and I will finish out this work that we’ve begun.”
But Newark Councilman Ronald Rice says Booker doesn’t have much of a choice now but to potentially leave the city without a chief.
“You have to seize the opportunity when it comes before you and I don’t see how he could avoid not running,” Rice said. “He’s almost forced to make the decision.”
In an email, the mayor’s office said Booker has been taking the steps necessary to run for several months now, but that “he will make an official announcement at the appropriate time.”
The Biggest Threat to Booker
Governor Christie could have appointed someone to fill Lautenberg’s seat until November 2014.
Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University, says Booker’s chances of potentially picking up the vacant seat are better now that there is a special election.
“The longer a temporary appointment has to make a name for themselves, the more they look like an incumbent and that could make it a little harder for Booker,” Zelizer said.
Some political scientists say the special election does make it difficult for Booker who is expected to have to run in an August primary against Democratic congressmen Rush Holt and Frank Pallone.
But a poll by the firm Public Policy Polling last winter found more than half of New Jersey Democrats wanted Cory Booker as their next senate candidate if Lautenberg didn’t run for re-election. Nobody else polled above 20 percent.
Tom Jensen is the director of the U.S. polling firm that conducts surveys for Democratic campaigns. He says the biggest threat to Booker would have been if Gov. Christie appointed a moderate Republican to replace Lautenberg temporarily.
But he says it will be an uphill battle for anyone — Democrat or Republican. There is no time to run a full campaign or to develop the name recognition Booker already has across the state.
His firm's poll found 77 percent of Democrats in New Jersey know Cory Booker. Only 29 percent know Frank Pallone.
And Jensen says Booker may be uniquely equipped to run in a short term election where there is less time to raise money.
“Cory Booker obviously has the national donor base to do that in a way that maybe somebody else who is interested in running would not.”