New Jersey voters can’t seem to make up their minds about Lautenberg

A Quinnipiac University poll released today shows a mixed bag for the 83-year-old U.S. Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg, and it’s unclear what it means for his reelection prospects. Fifty-four percent of voters say Lautenberg is too old for another term as Senator, yet voters approve of his job performance 41 to 32 percent. But only 31 percent say he deserves to be reelected, while 42 percent say he does not. Still, he beats a generic republican candidate by seven percent.

Lautenberg’s potential Republican opponents see the poll as further evidence of the elder statesman’s vulnerability. But if Democrats have any misgiving about the numbers – either those of the poll or the accumulated years in Lautenberg’s age — they’re hiding it well. After all, New Jersey voters have not elected a Republican Senator since Clifford Case won his 1972 re-election bid. Only two other states – West Virginia and Hawaii – have gone longer without electing a Republican Senator.

“It certainly looks like there’s an opportunity that Frank Lautenberg can be beat,” said Assemblyman Michael Doherty, who has formed an exploratory committee to run next year. “If I’m an incumbent and I’ve been in office for 25 years and only 31% of people think I deserve to be reelected, I’d be scratching my head and saying ‘maybe I’m going to get beat,” said Doherty, one of the legislature’s most conservative members.

Doherty added that any incumbent with an approval rating of under 50 percent is in dangerous territory. But it’s not Lautenberg’s age won’t likely hurt him with the voters, Doherty said – rather, it’s the age of his ideas, especially on taxes an immigration.

But while Lautenberg’s numbers are far from stellar for an incumbent, it doesn’t help the Republicans’ chances that the election will be held in 2008 – a presidential election year in a state that is increasingly trending Democratic. That will mean big turnout to support the Democratic candidate, something that could benefit the other Democrats on the ticket.

“2008 is going to have a bigger turnout. The Republicans would benefit from a lower turnout- their base tends to be very motivated,” said Joe Romance, a Professor of Political Science at Drew University.

Lautenberg supporters scoffed at the idea that the poll exposes any vulnerability, insisting that the Senior Senator remains in a strong position to retain his seat. Lautenberg campaign spokesman Steve DeMicco noted the Senator’s lead against the generic republican candidate as a sign of his strength, even if the margin was only seven points.

“The issue is effectiveness, not age, and Lautenberg is one of the most effective members of the Senate,” said DeMicco.

To some Democrats, the Republican claims of Lautenberg’s vulnerability had a familiar ring.

“One question on a poll is not always indicative of what will happen in an election, what will really be the issue on the forefront,” said Matt Miller, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “New Jersey Republicans year after year make the same argument that this will be the year that they’ll be able to run a strong, credible campaign for US Senate, and they never do.”

With three potential Senate candidates, none of whom are very well known, Republicans face an uphill battle in fielding a competitive candidate against someone as well known as Lautenberg. The pollster, Clay Richards, said as much himself. The numbers would be bad news for Lautenberg, he said, but only if he was facing a tough Republican opponent.

“Since no strong challenger has appeared so far on the horizon, and since 2008 is a presidential year, New Jersey's strong Democratic traditions could keep the Senator in office,” said Richards.

Generic polls often look bad for the incumbent. When those surveyed are asked about a head to head match up of Lautenberg versus any Republican candidate, they’ll often picture their favorite Republican in that spot. Specific head to head match ups are more likely to come out more than seven points in Lautenberg’s favor, said Romance.

“Those polls always benefit the generic,” said Romance. “The fact that he’s up on that is good news for Lautenberg.”

Still, the Republicans do have at least one realistic shot of making this a competitive race. If Rudy Giuliani wins the Republican nomination for President, he could negate the otherwise Democratic trends in a Presidential election year, possibly allowing a Republican Senate candidate to ride on his coattails. A Quinnipiac poll from last week shows Giuliani carrying New Jersey in head-to-head matchups against the top Democratic presidential candidates, including Sen. Hillary Clinton.

”The election is an eon away, so we don’t even know what the dynamics are going to be two months from now, let alone eighteen months from now,” said Assemblyman Joseph Pennacchio, who is also considering a U.S. Senate bid. “A person like Rudy Giuliani could do very well in New Jersey. If he does do well we don’t know how long his coattails will be. That could be factor.”

New Jersey voters can’t seem to make up their minds about  Lautenberg