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With Lautenberg exit, what are GOP chances to gain Senate seat?

Half a dozen potential candidates from both parties are eyeing the Senate seat in New Jersey, being vacated after 2014 by Democratic Sen. Frank Lautenberg. It'll be uphill for the GOP nominee.

By Husna HaqCorrespondent / February 15, 2013

In this Jan. 28 photo, Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., speaks to reporters after the Senate passed a $50.5 billion emergency relief measure for Superstorm Sandy victims at the Capitol in Washington.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP/File

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No sooner had Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D) of New Jersey announced his retirement from the US Senate, telling constituents and reporters late Thursday that he would not run for reelection in 2014, than the political vultures began circling. Already half a dozen potential candidates from both sides of the aisle have expressed interest in running for the octogenarian senator’s seat next year.

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At 89, Senator Lautenberg, who formally announces his retirement Friday in Paterson, N.J., is the oldest member of the Senate and the last World War II veteran in the chamber. His seat is one of 21 around the country that Democrats are defending next year. With 53 seats, Democrats currently maintain a narrow margin in the Senate, but the open New Jersey seat could help throw the chamber to the Republicans.

Do Republicans stand any chance of picking up the defiantly liberal senator’s seat in the heavily democratic Garden State?

“It’s going to be a tough road for Republicans,” says Brigid Harrison,” a political scientist at Montclair State University in Montclair, N.J. “We can’t ignore decades' worth of data that indicate that Democrats tend to control the federal process in New Jersey.”

Indeed, Garden State voters are among the most left-leaning in the country: They went for President Obama by a margin of nearly 18 percentage points in November.

Still, the state’s top seat is occupied by a brash Republican governor, Chris Christie, who won the hearts of many of his constituents once – and is likely to do so again later this year in New Jersey's gubernatorial race.

“You have to recall we’ll be coming off a pretty clear Christie victory in 2013,” says Dr. Harrison. “Chris Christie is the embodiment of the Republican Party in this state … so … there is going to be this kind of surging Republicanism in the state of New Jersey.”

Nonetheless, she says, “No [Republican contender] is waiting in the wings so well qualified, well organized, ready to step into the role immediately to combat the fundraising prowess Democrats currently have, namely [Newark Mayor] Cory Booker.”

Of course, that hasn’t stopped some Republicans – and other Democrats – from drooling over the prospect of a Senate run in 2014.

Among the potential candidates lining up for Lautenberg’s seat:

Newark Mayor Cory Booker (D). The clear front-runner, Mr. Booker formed a Senate campaign last month to explore a race. Opponents have said he considers himself the “heir apparent” to the seat. Indeed, when the mayor, who at 43 is less than half Lautenberg’s age, publicly expressed interest in running last month, Lautenberg said he deserved “a spanking” for openly coveting his seat before the sharp-elbowed senator had announced his retirement. Still, Booker is a favorite: A Quinnipiac poll shows Booker would have led Lautenberg 51 percent to 30 percent among likely Democratic primary voters.

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