A Momentary Threat to Frank Lautenberg

040208 lautenberg web A Momentary Threat to Frank LautenbergFrank Raleigh Lautenberg, New Jersey’s 84-year-old senior U.S. senator, is not a beloved public official. He has served off and (mostly) on since 1982, but has never garnered more than 54 percent of the vote in four winning campaigns. His approval ratings are mostly lukewarm, owing more to New Jersey’s partisan tendencies than anything else, and his biggest accomplishment in D.C. – essentially federalizing the 21-year-old minimum drinking age – came when “Ghostbusters” was still in theaters.

All of which makes what just transpired in New Jersey that much more remarkable: In the span of 24 hours between Monday and Tuesday afternoons, Lautenberg went from safe bet for re-election to most endangered Democratic incumbent in the nation and all the way back to safe again. The drama, much like Lautenberg’s political career, says a lot more about the peculiarities of Jersey politics than about the senator himself.

It began on Monday, when Rob Andrews, a South Jersey congressman who once seemed on the fast track to national political stardom, decided to skip a unity rally for Lautenberg. The rally, attended by Governor Jon Corzine, Senator Robert Menendez and most of the state’s Democratic House members, was the party establishment’s response to a threat from Tom Byrne, a former state Democratic chairman and the son of former Governor Brendan T. Byrne, to challenge Lautenberg in the June primary. Byrne’s prospective candidacy was more curiosity than threat, and the rally seemed to accomplish its goal: Just before it began, Byrne faxed a statement to its organizers announcing that he’d decided not to run.

But Andrews’ decision to skip the festivities raised an immediate question: Was he looking to run? It quickly became clear that he was, and with the primary filing deadline days away, he had to move fast. By late Monday afternoon, he confirmed that he was mulling a run, saying that “many leaders of the Democratic Party” had urged him on.

Here might be a good place to explain where Andrews’ urgency comes from. He was just 33 years old when he was elected in 1990 to represent Philly suburbs of South Jersey in Congress, and he arrived on Capitol Hill as rising star – well-spoken, politically moderate, and clearly ambitious. A few years later, he made his big move, entering the 1997 Democratic primary for governor. The primary was supposed to be a warm-up for the real fight against incumbent Christie Whitman in the fall. Andrews’ opponents were unknown: a former county prosecutor named Michael Murphy and a suburban mayor and state senator named Jim McGreevey.

But then those peculiarities of Jersey politics interfered. In most other states, every voter’s ballot looks essentially the same. Not so in New Jersey, where powerful county Democratic organizations award preferred space in their official, easy-to-spot columns to their chosen candidates. The lucky candidates are also aided by the county machine’s mighty army of field workers, who drag thousands of loyalists to the polls on election day to “vote the line.” The difference between running on and off the line in the state’s urban counties is the difference between winning and losing statewide.

And, when it came to getting on the right lines, no one in modern New Jersey politics was better at making the right promises to the right people than Jim McGreevey. In ’97, he schemed his way into the good graces of the bosses of Essex County, which includes Newark and its suburbs and accounts for 15 percent of all Democratic primary votes. Essex’s leaders had assured Andrews that he was their man, but at the last minute, they pulled the rug out from under him and handed the line to McGreevey. In the June primary, McGreevey beat Andrews by less than 10,000 votes statewide, a margin of about two points. The ambitious congressman was felled by an insider deal.

It is staggering to imagine how different New Jersey, and maybe even national, history would have been had the Essex deal gone down differently. McGreevey went on to lose narrowly to Whitman in the fall, a surprisingly strong showing that cemented his status as the front-runner for the Democratic nomination in ’01, which he ultimately won. The rest of his story is well-known. But what if Andrews had won the ’97 primary? It’s widely believed that he would have beaten Whitman, which would have made Andrews one of the youngest governors in the country, with a moderate profile that would have made him an attractive national prospect. A re-election win in 2001 would almost certainly have led to talk of a national campaign in 2004.

Instead, an embittered Andrews went into virtual seclusion after his loss to McGreevey, retreating to his safe House seat and disappearing from the state political scene, the young man in a hurry no more. He re-emerged in 2004, at the age of 47, intent on winning statewide office – either the governorship or a Senate seat. Again, he was frustrated. There was no room for him in the 2005 gubernatorial race, not with Jon Corzine and his checkbook in the way, so Andrews, after briefly flirting with a bid, pulled out and endorsed Corzine, hoping Corzine would return the favor by appointing him to his Senate seat upon being elected governor. But Corzine went with Menendez instead. An irate Andrews first threatened to challenge Menendez in the primary, but quickly thought better of it, believing he’d be first in line when Lautenberg retired in 2008.

But, of course, Lautenberg had no interest in retiring. His decision to run again must have been jarring to Andrews, who realized that –with Lautenberg running in ’08, Corzine seeking re-election in 2009, and Menendez presumably running again in 2012 – the next statewide opening for a Democrat wouldn’t be until 2014 at the earliest, when Andrews would be 57.

And so it was that, with the primary deadline nearing, the one-time rising star decided to make a run at Lautenberg. In any other state, Andrews’ decision would have set off a heated-but-conventional primary campaign, one decided by voters in June. But, again, this is Jersey, where primaries are won months ahead of time, one county line at a time.

In a Senate primary, Andrews would be able to bank on the support of every county organization south of I-195, where his is a popular name and where the lines are all handed out (unofficially, of course) by George Norcross, a powerful boss who liked the idea of an Andrews’ candidacy for reasons of his own. But South Jersey accounts for only about 30 percent of all primary votes. To beat Lautenberg, Andrews would need to pick off a key county or two in the north. And he seemed to do just that on Tuesday morning, when the party boss in Bergen County sent signals that he’d go with Andrews, a decision that threatened to push another northern county or two into Andrews’ column. Andrews had his line and, according to some reports, began telling Democrats that he was in the race.

And then Jersey politics messed up his plans – again. This time the culprit was fellow Congressman Steve Rothman, who is from Bergen County. Rothman wants a Senate seat just as badly as Andrews, but he lacks the nerve to challenge Lautenberg. Still, Rothman’s attitude seemed to be: If I can’t get it, I’ll be damned if Andrews does. So Rothman went to Bergen’s boss and threatened to organize his own rival ballot column in the June primary if the official Bergen line went to Andrews. Such a move would have endangered all of the county party’s candidates for local office, the bread and butter of the Bergen machine. And so, just like 11 years ago, the rug was pulled out from under Andrews.

Bergen’s refusal to break with Lautenberg prevented a domino reaction across North Jersey, and by late Tuesday night Andrews was running out of options. An attempted incursion into Middlesex County earlier in the evening fell flat. And Hudson, Menendez’s home base, was a non-starter.

And then there’s Essex, the state’s top Democratic county and the place where Andrews’ aspirations died back in ’97. It seemed a ripe target this time around: He’s carefully nursed his relationships there the past few years, and Norcross (the South Jersey boss) is owed some favors. Had Bergen flipped to Andrews, Essex’s Democratic chiefs – County Executive Joe DiVincenzo and power-broker Steve Adubato, Sr. – might have been emboldened and followed suit.

But instead, they thought twice, spooked by the prospect of a contested Senate primary. Why? Because handing the Senate line to Andrews would have prompted Lautenberg to organize a rival ballot line, and he would have done so with the support of Newark Mayor Cory Booker, and possibly other big names. That would have endangered the county organization’s candidates for county office. And that risk alone is too high a price for any self-respecting party boss to pay for a U.S. Senate race, where, after all, no patronage is at stake.

Tuesday ended with Andrews still officially mulling the race. But that posture almost certainly won’t last long. And so it is that Frank Lautenberg, one of the least-celebrated four-term senators in American history, is once again a safe bet for a fifth term in the world’s most exclusive club.

UPDATE: Maybe not so momentary after all.