Byrne won’t rule out primary challenge to Lautenberg

While two recent independent polls show that a majority of New Jerseyans think Frank Lautenberg is too old to serve another full term in the U.S. Senate, so far there have been no Democrats willing to openly discuss a primary bid.

Add Tom Byrne to that list.

Or, to be exact, Brendan Thomas Byrne, Jr, the son of the former governor.

Byrne, a 53-year-old financial consultant and the Democratic State Chairman from 1994 to 1997, is sitting on about half a million dollars left over from the exploratory committee he set up to mull a Senate race in 2000, which he decided not to enter after Jon Corzine started gaining traction.

Byrne downplays the idea that he would challenge Lautenberg, saying he doesn’t want reporters to “stir the pot when nothing’s there.”

“Most people think that (Lautenberg) has done a good job in office and has the energy to continue,” said Byrne, whose firm advertises on PoliticsNJ.com.

But he won’t rule it out either.

“A few people have talked to me about it, but I haven’t really done anything, so I don’t see it,” said Byrne. “That my name comes up, I’m complimented to hear it.”

That may sound like a stretch considering the size of the pile of money Byrne is sitting on, but he could find it useful.

For one, there’s the ever-so-slight possibility that Lautenberg will decide not to seek another term, in which case Byrne is much more candid about his aspirations, saying that he would be likely to seek the Democratic nomination.

In that case, he’ll need all the money he can get. All but two of the state’s seven Democratic congressmen would be interested in succeeding Lautenberg. The five have amassed war chests ranging from Rush Holt’s $630,000 to Frank Pallone’s $2.9 million – the most cash of any congressman in the country.

There’s also the possibility that Byrne could seek a different office and channel his money into that campaign. If he decides that he never will run for elected office, Byrne said, he’ll distribute the money to other campaigns.

In the unlikely event that Byrne does decide to run a primary against Lautenberg, he’ll find a tough battle against the 83.5 year old, who by all accounts does not plan to relinquish his seat and has amassed $2.9 million to keep it.

Still, Byrne is in a position that many potential statewide candidate would envy. He’s got the name recognition from his father and is wealthy, though probably not to the point of being able to self-finance a statewide campaign.

“With his name and money, he’s well positioned to run up a flagpole and see if anybody salutes it without having to establish himself,” said Quinnipiac University pollster Clay Richards.

When it comes to his age, the recent polls on Lautenberg are troubling. A Rutgers-Eagleton poll from last month showed that 61 percent of respondents said that Lautenberg’s age would likely hurt his ability to represent New Jersey over the course of another term. In a July Quinnipiac poll, 51 percent of those polled said that Lautenberg is “too old to effectively serve another term.”

But as bad as those numbers look, they’re not likely to make him vulnerable in a primary.

“It’s absolutely in a vacuum and political history shows us that age is not necessarily a major problem in a campaign,” said Richards. “I think certainly that (Byrne’s) name should be on the short list for potential candidates for statewide office in New Jersey, but he still has a way to go to take on someone of the stature of Frank Lautenberg, who other than age has no real vulnerability and has been highly electable.”

And there is, of course, the legacy of Tom Kean, Jr. – another popular former governor’s son who managed to secure his party’s nomination but failed in his quest for a U.S. Senate seat.

“Recent history tells us that the son of a former popular governor does not necessarily mean a free ticket into office,” said Richards.

Byrne won’t rule out primary challenge to Lautenberg