Corzine/Lautenberg rift personal, but not deadly

While Gov. Corzine’s reaction to Frank Lautenberg’s opposition to his toll road plan was unusually strong, don’t count on a primary challenger emerging for Lautenberg.

At least not Rep. Rob Andrews, who recently endorsed the Governor’s monetization plan along with Rep. Rush Holt and has long been considered one of the prime contenders for the seat if Lautenberg decides not to run or leaves part way through his term.

“We’re all for Sen. Lautenberg, and I don’t want to contribute to anything that’s divisive in the Democratic Party,” said Andrews.

When Andrews endorsed the plan two and a half weeks ago, many insiders saw it as jockeying for position in the group of four Congressmen who hope to some day succeed Lautenberg. But Andrews said today that senatorial aspirations played no part in the decision.

“Being for this toll plan as a political strategy is not a very good political strategy,” he said, adding that he felt Republicans were getting off the hook for calling for budget cutbacks but offering no solution. “It polls terribly and the smart thing to do is sit it out. It’s the best idea of a lot of bad options…. I believe in what he’s trying to do and I think the state needs an honest dialogue about it.”

Moreover, any primary challenger running as a result of such a feud could get labeled as a pro-monetization challenger – not a comfortable position for a plan so unpopular with the public.

“I can’t imagine that somebody would be running on a platform to adopt the Corzine program as presented,” said Ingrid Reed, director of the Eagleton Institute’s New Jersey project.

The threat by Corzine to scale back fundraising for Lautenberg is harsh, but party insiders say that the rift between the two politicians shouldn’t be difficult to repair. The spat has its origins at least in part because a perceived personal slight: before announcing his opposition, Lautenberg neglected to call Corzine.

And in his response, Corzine may be trying to send a message to other Democrats. His toll road plan may put them in a tough spot, but the front office won’t take defections lying down.

As for fundraising, barring a primary challenge it wouldn’t be in Corzine’s interest to abstain from raising money for Lautenberg, especially if the Republican nominee is millionaire businesswoman Anne Evans Estabrook. Although a top Corzine aide told the Ledger that a Manhattan fundraiser for Lautenberg would be called off, an event is still scheduled for next week at the home of Corzine fundraiser Daniel Neidich, a Goldman Sachs executive.

Seton Hall University Professor Joe Marbach, a PolitickerNJ.com contributor, said that there probably has been a behind the scenes effort, perhaps by the Governor, to keep primary challengers away from Lautenberg and some Democratic congressional candidates like John Adler and Linda Stender – both of whom have since come out against the toll plan.

“It wouldn’t surprise me if he’s discouraged people, and trying to use the notion of fundraising is the hammer to keep people out,” he said.

Marbach said that the candidates’ positions against monetization makes sense, especially in light of former Sen. Bill Bradley’s 1990 near defeat in his reelection bid by Christie Whitman over then Gov. Jim Florio’s tax hikes. For a Governor who’s more known for repairing relationships than for causing rifts, a primary challenge doesn’t appear to be in the cards.

“I would doubt (a primary challenge), because it’s rocking the boat,” said Marbach. “To this point the Governor’ modus operandi has always to smooth things out in the Democratic Party.”

Corzine/Lautenberg rift personal, but not deadly