When Lautenberg’s age met Booker’s ambition: An elegy for the Swamp Dog

FOR A WHILE, IT LOOKED LIKE THAT WOULD be the last race Lautenberg would ever run. In early 1999, as he turned 75, he began looking with trepidation at the 2000 race. Whitman, wrapping up her second term as governor, was making noise about running. Polls showed her ahead. Kean, forever flirting with a comeback after leaving the governorship a decade earlier, was also in the mix, and also leading Lautenberg. There was also the matter of Lautenberg’s new nemesis, Robert Torricelli, a Democrat who’d been elected to the Senate in 1996.

The Torch was an ambitious strategic thinker, and he knew where the money was. He raised a ton for his ’96 campaign, and his Senate colleagues saw a chance for him to do the same for them, so they made him the DSCC chairman for 2000. But he and Lautenberg didn’t get along, to put it mildly. Lautenberg was suspicious that Torricelli was too friendly with Whitman. At a gathering of Democratic senators in 1999, Lautenberg rose to address his concerns with Torricelli, who, according to a Roll Call report at the time, sought Lautenberg out after the session and said, “I’m going to cut your [genitals] off.”

It was around this time that Lautenberg opted not to seek a fourth term in 2000. He brushed off talk that he was scared off by the prospect of running against Whitman or Kean, saying he’d been vulnerable in past races and that “Mr. Vulnerable always wins.” Almost as soon as he made the announcement, though, he began telling those close to him that he’d made a major mistake.

By all accounts, the next two years of Lautenberg’s life were miserable. He missed the Senate daily, regretted giving up his seat (especially after Whitman declined to run), and seemed resigned to living out his life wondering what might have been. And then came one of those only-in-Jersey twists: The sudden implosion of Torricelli’s 2002 reelection campaign.

Torricelli had been dogged by questions for years over his relationship with a wealthy donor and had narrowly avoided indictment in early ’02. That imperiled his campaign for a second term, but when a damning prosecutor’s memo was released just over a month before the election, Democrats in Trenton and Washington demanded that he exit the race. Torricelli eventually complied, asking tearfully at his goodbye press conference, “When did we become such unforgiving people?” 

Suddenly, Republicans were in the driver’s seat for their first Senate victory in New Jersey since 1972. National Democrats, clinging to a one-seat majority in the chamber, demanded that a brand-name replacement candidate be recruited. Bradley, content in his retirement from elected politics, passed. So did a handful of congressmen. That left 78-year-old Frank Lautenberg, who quickly agreed and found himself back on a New Jersey ballot just a month before Election Day. It was the break of a lifetime, and he coasted from there. Most New Jersey voters hadn’t even realized that he’d left in the first place, and he ended up beating the earnest, forgettable Republican Doug Forrester by nearly ten points.

The question then was how long Lautenberg would stick around. His seat would be up in 2008, and those who knew him insisted he’d run again, health permitting. After all, he’d seen what life without the Senate was like and he’d hated it. Why would he voluntarily go back to that again?

But not everyone believed that. By the summer of 2003, two Democrats were making their interest in the ’08 race clear: Bergen County-based congressman Steve Rothman and State Senator John Adler, from South Jersey. Each said all the right things about deferring to Lautenberg, but the senator didn’t appreciate it; he took to calling them “the pallbearers” in private conversations. (As it turned out, Adler won a House seat in 2008, lost it narrowly in the 2010 G.O.P. landslide, then died from a heart infection in 2011. Rothman stayed in his safe House seat through the 2010 midterm, then watched as his district was merged with that of Rep. Bill Pascrell, who thrashed him in a head-to-head primary last spring, likely ending Rothman's career.)

Lautenberg did end up getting a primary challenge in ’08, but it’s best remembered—if it’s remembered at all—for its ineptness. Rob Andrews, a South Jersey congressman who had been an up-and-come in the late ‘90s only to lose a gubernatorial primary to Jim McGreevey, tried to line up the state’s most powerful county Democratic organizations and stage a surprise attack on Lautenberg. For a brief moment, it seemed like it might work, but some help from on-the-make congressman Bob Menendez—who was eager to show national Democrats that he could put out a fire in his home state—killed the Andrews plot and kept most organizations loyal to the incumbent. That, coupled with Andrews’ unpopular vote for the Iraq war in 2002, resulted in an easy Lautenberg win in the primary, followed by an easy general election win over former then-congressman Dick Zimmer. In the Obama year of 2008, there was little general-election suspense in New Jersey.

THE BOOKER CHALLENGE FEELS DIFFERENT, THOUGH.

Booker was a national celebrity long before he ever won a mayoral election, and can raise money like few politicians in America. 

He has his issues within Newark, where he didn't break 60 percent of the vote in his most recent re-election campaign. But he’s a genuine political rock star among Democrats statewide. Polls show him crushing Lautenberg two-to-one in Democratic primary trial heats.

Funny things can and frequently do happen in New Jersey, and it’s too much to say that Booker is a lock. But Lautenberg is in a deeper hole than he’s ever been in, opposed, it seems, by a stronger candidate than he’s ever faced.

The smart money says he calls it a career soon rather than face the voters again. And, if the past is any indication, that he'll regret it for the rest of his life.