Some five months after New Jersey voters weighed in on the Democratic and Republican presidential contests, the campaign for the U.S. Senate seat is not generating the same voter intensity and interest that was sparked by Super Tuesday.
That would seem to mean good news for U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), who, at 84, is seeking his fifth term. After three terms, Lautenberg initially retired from politics back in 2001, but returned the next year when then U.S. Sen. Robert Torricelli (D-N.J.) dropped out of the general election race over a campaign-finance scandal.
As a one-time chairman of the United Jewish Appeal, Lautenberg, a multimillionaire, is one of the country's best-known Jewish politicians.
"It's hard to detect any strong feelings in this race," said Ingrid Reed, a policy analyst with the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University. Such an atmosphere — in which frequent voters and party leaders play an outsized role in determining the outcome — usually favors the incumbent, noted Reed.
Lautenberg's chief opponent in the June 3 Democratic primary is U.S. Rep. Rob Andrews (D-N.J.), a 51-year-old Camden native, whose district covers much of the South Jersey region that abuts Philadelphia. The race pits a candidate with a South Jersey constituency against one from the north — home to roughly two-thirds of the state's population and much of its wealth — though South Jersey is growing at a faster rate.
In April, Andrews announced that he was stepping down from his House seat to run for Senate; his wife, Camille Andrews, is running for that seat. Morristown Mayor Donald Cresitello is also running for the Senate seat.
According to the latest Monmouth University poll, released on April 30, when Democrat and Democratic-leaning independents were asked to name who they'd like to see as the Democratic nominee, 35 percent picked Lautenberg, as compared to 20 percent for Andrews and 4 percent for Cresitello.
On www.PolitickerNJ.com, a Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee poll had Lautenberg topping Andrews among likely Democratic voters by a margin of 57 percent to 22 percent. More encouraging for Andrews is that, in the Monmouth poll, 61 percent of registered voters said it was time for another person to serve in the Senate seat.
Reed said that Andrews is faced with the challenge of convincing voters that it's time to turn the page, without explicitly stating that Lautenberg is too old for the job. Instead, he's criticized the incumbent for largely avoiding debates, and has alleged that Lautenberg doesn't really reside in his Bergen County home, but spends more time in the New York City residence of his wife. (Lautenberg denies this.)
"It's not age. The main issue is effectiveness," said Andrews. "Who is best prepared and most committed to represent 8.5 million people for the next six years?"
With a war chest roughly double the size of Andrew's, Lautenberg has run an aggressive ad campaign that has portrayed his opponent as a longtime champion of Iraq war, which is deeply unpopular, especially among Democratic primary voters.
Andrews has replied that Lautenberg was not in the Senate when the 2002 authorization vote came up, and that in the early days, he had often voiced support for the war as well.
Julie Roginsky, a Lautenberg spokeswoman, said that unlike Lautenberg, Andrews had defended the war in Iraq long after most Democrats had become critics.
"Sen. Lautenberg was not in the Senate at the time and didn't have access to the same intelligence. Had he had access to the same intelligence, he probably wouldn't have made the same decision," said Roginsky.
Andrews stated that he is fiercely pro-Israel and is wary of the current administration's attempts to pressure Israel into negotiating with the Palestinian Authority. Lautenberg, who has long been considered a staunch pro-Israel advocate, supports the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations begun at Annapolis, Md.
Three Republicans, Dick Zimmer, Joe Pennacchio and Murray Sabrin, are squaring off to represent the party in the general election, although the odds are long that the GOP will capture the seat.