Pallone positioned to move up

Last week’s fight between Henry Waxman and John Dingell for chairmanship of the powerful House Energy and Commerce committee also featured a less visible battle waged by U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone — only the latest in a series of moves to effectively position himself for a potential promotion to the Senate.

Soon after the election, Pallone joined Waxman’s whip operation to take on the automakers’ leading advocate in Congress in what appeared to be a long shot, unprecedented challenge to the seniority system. It was a gutsy move that paid off. His support was largely under the radar, but it’s the kind of step that will get observers in Washington to take him more seriously.

Working against Pallone was Rob Andrews, who whipped votes for Dingell. Just as in his primary senate challenge to Frank Lautenberg, none of his colleagues from the state delegation backed him in that effort. Most insiders no longer consider Andrews a serious contender for Senate.

That currently leaves U.S. Rep. Steve Rothman as Pallone’s most likely serious opponent for the seat. Rothman was an early supporter of Barack Obama and served as his campaign’s Northeast Regional co-chairman, while Pallone was a high-profile Hillary Clinton supporter. But Rothman’s greatest advantage may be that he hails from the 9th Congressional District which includes portions of Bergen and Hudson counties — the Democratic party base.

Even on that front, Pallone is working to make inroads. Despite the absence of a credible general election opponent, the congressman has been running cable television ads on health care since mid-October. They ran not just in his district, but across Central and North Jersey — a dead giveaway that he’s already running a serious campaign for higher office. The $190,000 spent on the ad buy represents his single largest expenditure of the campaign cycle.

Like other ambitious politicians seeking to build support among the rank and file, Pallone often makes appearances in all corners of the state. But perhaps none has been as systematically relentless in that pursuit as he; in recent years Pallone has made a deliberate effort to attend every rubber chicken dinner, party or activist meeting, coffee klatch and house party that he possibly can.

Beefing up rank-and-file support could prove critical in the case of a contested primary election fight, especially since Pallone lacks much machine organization or support among party bosses, but his best chance to move up to the Senate may come from an open seat appointment by the governor. So while he’s working to build name recognition statewide, the one person Pallone really wants to impress is Jon Corzine.

And what better way to do that than to publicly challenge the governor’s most likely Republican opponent, U.S. Attorney Chris Christie? Because of Christie’s impressive corruption-fighting record and the fawning media coverage it attracts, few have been willing to publicly question his political abuses of the office. But since last November Pallone has waged a high-profile pseudo-campaign against Christie, and there’s no doubt Corzine and Democrats across the state have taken notice.

As an added bonus, that criticism is surely welcomed by Senator Bob Menendez, who may soon assume the chairmanship of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. In 2006, Menendez was the target of one of Christie’s most egregious political attacks, which bordered on coordination with the campaign of state Sen. Tom Kean, Jr. In what appeared to be a close Senate race, Christie issued subpoenas related to corruption charges against Menendez two months before Election Day and quickly leaked word to the press, providing Kean with political ammunition. Almost two years ago, a special grand jury was convened to consider the matter, but judging by the lack of leaks from Christie’s office, this case had less meat than a ham sandwich.

There are other factors that are also favorable to Pallone’s prospects. As of mid-October, he had amassed nearly $3.4 million in his war chest — critical to mounting a statewide campaign. By comparison, Rothman had $1.8 million in the bank, and the rest of the delegation had even less.

Fundraising capacity and the ability to effectively compete in such an expensive media market will factor strongly in any decision Corzine might have to make. And on the issues, Pallone arguably has the advantage. Corzine has said that the 2002 vote against the Iraq war was a key reason for appointing Menendez to fill the seat he vacated, and Pallone was also on the right side of that vote.

All of this isn’t to say that Pallone is likely to be the next senator from New Jersey. This scenario would require a Rube Goldberg-like sequence of events to occur in the future, and I’m not even good at predicting when my favorite TV shows will come on. But if a Senate vacancy were to occur while Jon Corzine is governor, and no new serious contenders — such as Cory Booker — appeared besides Pallone and Rothman, my money would be on Frank Pallone being the next senator to represent New Jersey.

Pallone positioned to move up