COMMENTARY | Newark Mayor Cory Booker is a dynamic Democratic mayor, the next big thing in politics. So how could his candidacy cost the Democrats a Senate seat in New Jersey? It has to do with timing, and dividing his party, as a result.
Booker is a youthful, exuberant candidate whose enthusiasm even managed to get the best of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie during a blizzard a few years back. Democrats drooled over Booker’s chances to win a statewide office, either knocking off a less popular Christie or taking the reins from longtime New Jersey Sen. Frank Lautenberg.
In fact, that dilemma of which higher office to pursue seems to have made Booker a divisive candidate, and could open the door to Republicans in 2014.
Booker probably planned on running for governor. Many hypothetical matchups featured the Newark mayor and Christie. This was when Christie had a number of stumbles early in his first term. But not Christie’s fortunes have rebounded with Hurricane Sandy, both in his response and his bipartisanship in this Democrat-leaning state. Polls show him trouncing the Democratic front-runner, Barbara Buono, a New Jersey state legislator.
So Booker refocused his efforts on the New Jersey Senate. There was only one problem: Lautenberg hadn’t announced he would step down in late 2012, even though most expected he would. After the Newtown, Conn., shooting, Lautenberg seemed poised to get involved in the debate.
Booker was clearly vying for the job, leading a number of pollsters to pit the young African-American mayor against the elderly white senator. And Lautenberg wasn’t looking so good, even among Democrats. Lautenberg finally gave his announcement that he did not intend to seek another term.
But the damage was done. You see, had Lautenberg been able to leave on his own terms, it would leave his legacy intact. But now he looks like he’s limping away with his tail tucked between his legs, rejected in favor of Booker in an election-by-poll.
Evidence of this bitterness bubbled to the surface when Lautenberg criticized Booker’s candidacy, saying he should “finish the job” in Newark before running. Other New Jersey representatives who have served much longer than Booker and patiently waited their turn are gearing up to run, like Rep. Frank Pallone and Rep. Rush Holt.
There could be a divisive primary, leading to a Democratic Party nominee who is weakened by the ordeal, in money and effort. That could pave the way for a strong Republican nominee like Thomas Kean Jr., the son of a popular former governor, who did a decent job against Sen. Robert Menendez in a bad GOP year (2006). Kean could wait for a rematch with Menendez , but the likely Democrat turmoil could be encouraging for New Jersey Republicans.
John A. Tures is an associate professor of political science at LaGrange College in LaGrange, Ga.