There was a lot of talk surrounding the 2014 US Senate Exploratory Committee formed by Newark, New Jersey Mayor Cory Booker this past week. If Booker decides to go ahead with a full-fledged campaign, we will have to go through Frank Lautenberg to earn a shot at the Senate seat. Both Booker and Lautenberg are Democrats. Booker, 43, is a much talked about politician who may represent the future of the Democratic Party. Lautenberg, 88, is a stalwart of the party and served (with a brief retirement from 2001-2002) in the Senate since 1982. When he has faced primary challenges, Lautenberg has vanquished them quite easily. Booker, however, will be the Senator’s toughest challenge yet. His entrance came with the requisite not-so kind words from the incumbent’s camp.
One must remember, however, that with incumbency comes its rewards. Lautenberg has a widely known name recognition, a considerable Senate record, the ability to fundraise, and a wide assortment of Democratic allies at this disposal. Something else going against Booker is the lack of successful primary challenges since Lautenberg became Senator in 1982. Since 1982, only eight incumbents have lost to opponents in primary elections.
1992: Carol Moseley-Braun (D-IL) defeated Sen. Alan Dixon
1996: Sam Brownback (R-KS) defeated Sen. Sheila Frahm
2002: John Sununu (R-NH) defeated Sen. Bob Smith
2006: Ned Lamont (D-CT) defeated Sen. Joe Lieberman
2010: Joe Miller (R-AK) defeated Sen. Lisa Murkowski; Mike Lee (R-UT) defeated Sen. Bob Bennett; Joe Sestak (D-PA) defeated Sen. Arlen Specter
2012: Richard Mourdock (R-IN) defeated Sen. Richard Lugar
There are some interesting caveats with these challenges though. In two of those cases, the incumbent party ended up losing the seat to the opposition (2012 – IN; 2010 – PA). Two other cases found the incumbent who lost in primary end up keeping the seat in the general election. Lieberman ran as a third party candidate in his general election, while Murkowski ran as a write-in and won. In Frahm’s case, she was appointed to the position after Bob Dole resigned in order to run for President in 1996. Bennett was defeated in a Utah Republican Party state convention vote and finished third, not only to Lee but to small businessman Tim Bridgewater. Sestak defeated Specter who previously switched from the Republican to Democratic Party in 2009. John Sununu defeated a weakened Bob Smith, who flirted with Presidential ambitions as a member of the US Taxpayers Party. Out of the eight primary challenges, only two, Moseley-Braun and Mourdock, ran against two strong incumbents. You could argue, however, that Dixon’s vote for Clarence Thomas for Supreme Court Justice hurt his re-election campaign, and that Tea Party activists outside of teh Republican Party establishment contributed heavily to the Lugar’s defeat.
That is what makes Booker’s run against Lautenberg so interesting. Lautenberg is considered to be a strong incumbent by New Jersey Democrats. He does not have the same baggage or problems that weighed down and subsequently defeated other incumbents in their respective primaries. If Booker does win his primary fight, then it is highly likely that the Democrats will hold that seat after the general election, as the Republicans do not have a strong bench after Governor Chris Christie. If Booker should lose to Lautenberg, then the Booker brand as a future standard bearer of the Democratic Party is diminished. Booker must run a spirited campaign against Lautenberg in order to give himself a fighting chance. After all, recent history tells us that it is very difficult to defeat an incumbent in a primary election.
What are your thoughts on this race?