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.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP/File
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.

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.

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.

Geraldo Rivera (R). The attention-grabbing conservative Fox News commentator told Twitter followers last month that he’s contemplating a run. “Wondering how folks feel about me running in N.J. under GOP banner against either Lautenberg or Booker for U.S. Senate?” he tweeted.

Apparently not much: About two-thirds of New Jersey voters, or 65 percent, said they would not be likely to vote for Mr. Rivera, according to a poll by Monmouth University. Some 26 percent say they would be very or somewhat likely to back the conservative commentator.

Rep. Frank Pallone (D). Congressman Pallone is the only person at this point expected to give Booker a run for his money. According to early reports, he already has $3.4 million in campaign funds and is quietly working behind the scenes to line up support. Commenting on Lautenberg’s retirement, he recently told CNN “I will say his not running changes the political landscape and I’ve always been interested in the Senate, and I’m going to continue to explore running.”

Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D). "I think that I will be well prepared to launch a campaign for the US Senate,” the state legislator told reporters Thursday after Lautenberg’s announcement. If nothing else, she’ll keep Booker on his toes. “It has nothing to do with how many Twitter followers you have and it has nothing to do with how many Facebook friends you have,” Assemblywoman Oliver said, taking a jab at the Newark mayor. “Mayor Booker will have to compete for the support of the citizens of New Jersey.”

State Senate minority leader Thomas Kean (R). The Union County state senator ran for US Senate in 2006 to fill the seat of Jon Corzine, and he may be a potential Republican contender in 2014. He is the son of Thomas Kean, New Jersey governor from 1982 to 1990.

Assembly Republican leader Jon Bramnick (R). Another Union County Republican, Assemblyman Bramnick was appointed to the Assembly upon Kean’s move to the state Senate and may also vie for the open US Senate seat.

Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D). The Gloucester County state senator is also contemplating a run, according to reports.

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