Frank Lautenberg, who has never amassed huge approval ratings in independent polls and has never won more than 55% of the vote in a general election, appears likely to become the first five-term United States Senator in New Jersey history. The 84-year-old Democrat is positioned to break Clifford Case's record of 24 years in statewide office in December. He has already passed Harrison Williams for number two on that list.
Some analysts say that Lautenberg has been lucky — the fortunate beneficiary of the Republicans nominating the wrong candidate in each of his elections. His first campaign was against Millicent Fenwick, an iconic 72-year-old Congresswoman who was the model for Doonsbury's Lacey Davenport character. But Fenwick refused to raise PAC money and couldn't compete with Lautenberg's vast self-financed warchest. Old-time GOP'ers say that Jim Courter, then a two-term Congressman, would have been a stronger candidate for the open Senate seat.
Six years later, Republican Peter Dawkins, a retired Army General and former Heisman Trophy winner, proved to be a less than stellar candidate — he made a few gaffes that impaired his ability to take off, even as George H.W. Bush was winning the state. Some Republicans active twenty years ago say that the other Republican candidate in that race, state Community Affairs Commissioner Leonard Coleman, an African American who played a key role in Governor Thomas Kean's landslide re-election in 1985, would have made a stronger candidate. Kean helped clear the field for Dawkins, and Coleman went on to serve as President of Major League Baseball's National League. And had Kean himself run against Lautenberg, many pundits say that seat would have gone Republican.
As Republicans were sweeping Senate races across the nation in 1994, Lautenberg nearly lost re-election to Garabed "Chuck" Haytaian, the Assembly Speaker. Republicans say that then-Congressman Dick Zimmer, who backed out of the race in favor of Haytaian, would have had a better chance of beating the incumbent. Others listed as potentially stronger Republican candidates: former Attorney General Cary Edwards, who had lost Republican gubernatorial primaries in 1989 and 1993; and State Sen. Bill Gormley, who instead ran for Congress and lost the GOP primary to Frank LoBiondo.
Lautenberg retired in 2000, paving the way for Jon Corzine to spend $75 million launching a career in politics. But when Bob Torricelli dropped his re-election bid five weeks before Election Day — and after Bob Menendez, Frank Pallone, Rob Andrews and Bill Bradley declined to run — Lautenberg came out of retirement to run again. His opponent, former West Windsor Mayor Douglas Forrester, had been leading Torricelli in the polls. Against Lautenberg, Forrester was just the guy who was running against Torricelli and lacked his own identity. Other Republicans, like Gormley, former Congressman Bob Franks (who had nearly beaten Corzine two years earlier, but lost a GOP primary for Governor in 2001), and even State Sen. Diane Allen, who lost the primary to Forrester, might have been more potent foes against Lautenberg.
Many Republicans thought Lautenberg, given his age, might be vulnerable in 2008; indeed, fellow Democrat Rob Andrews thought so. But the GOP search for a candidate became a laughingstock as the party flipped from businesswoman Anne Evans Estabrook to Goya foods heir Andy Unanue to biotech millionaire John Crowley, and finally to Zimmer, who left Congress in 1996 to run against Torricelli for the Senate. Zimmer has found fundraising difficult, but in his defense, 2008 is looking like such a strongly Democratic year that even a first-tier challenger would have had a difficult time beating Lautenberg.