In surprising development, New Jersey Senate race gets crowded

5 days from the New Jersey filing deadline, Senator Frank Lautenberg looked increasingly safe. Republicans, despite desperately trying to find a credible challenger to the incumbent, had come up with three low-tier candidates: a state Senator (Joseph Pennachio), a professor, and a business executive (Andrew Unanue, who was quickly for declaring his candidacy from a ski resort in Colorado and for having been fired from a job for coming to work drunk).

But Lautenberg now has to face a (rare) Democratic primary, as Rep. Robert Andrews from Southern New Jersey announced today he is jumping in the Senate race. Andrews has long been looking to run for higher office; he lost the 1997 gubernatorial primary to Jim McGreevey (yes, that governor) and he hoped that the state party would select him for Senate when a last-minute tap was needed weeks before Election Day in 2002 (Lautenberg ended up being tapped) and when there was a vacancy to be filled in 2005 (Corzine chose Menendez).

Lautenberg, on the other hand, is running for a 5th term -- and has thus been in the Senate for 24 years. He is 84 years old and retired once in 2000, two years before he unexpectedly got back in the Senate in 2002. The age factor will likely be Andrews' main argument against Lautenberg, despite the fact that the two men have different ideological reputations: Andrews is known as a moderate while Lautenberg is considered to be a reliable liberal vote.

Needless to say that Launtenberg starts as the heavy favorite: it is extremely rare for any incumbent to lose a primary race anywhere, let alone in New Jersey where challengers have to run ads in the ultra-expensive New York and Philadelphia markets to introduce themselves to voters. And Andrews starts off clearly behind. The DSCC polled the race this week and found Lautenberg leading 57% to 22% (releasing the numbers were also clearly a way to prevent Andrews from jumping in).

What is particularly puzzling is why Andrews would wait this long to jump in this difficult a race. The primary is on June 3rd, which means that Andrews only has a few weeks to raise his profile and name recognition and convince voters to vote against an incumbent. A very tall order, particularly since it means that Andrews has to abandon his House seat.

With Launtenberg likely to be in the Senate for 6 more years and neither Corzine nor Menendez showing any sign that they will retire any time soon, Andrews apparently just did not want to spend 6 more years in the House. Keep in mind that there weren't even primaries held to settle on the Democratic nominee the last two times Senate seats opened up in New Jersey (2002 and 2005). For someone who has been waiting to have a go for statewide office for 11 years now, that has to be particularly frustrating.

A final note on the New Jersey Senate race, as Rasmussen released a poll this morning with match-ups of Lautenberg against his potential Republican opponents. The survey confirms that Lautenberg will be favored in the fall if he survives the primary:

  • He leads Pennacchio 54% to 36% and finance professor Sabrin 54% to 35%.
  • His favorability rating is not terribly impressive, but at 53-38 it is not in dangerous enough territory to qualify him as too vulnerable in the primary or the general.



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