Who Wants to Be a U.S. Senator?

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Sen. Torricelli, left, hugs NJ Gov. McGreevey after announcing his exit

"I will not be responsible for the loss of the Democratic majority of the United States Senate," Senator Robert Torricelli said Monday. Unfortunately for Democrats, Torricelli, in abandoning his re-election campaign, may have accomplished exactly that. The big questions, for New Jersey and the balance of power in the Senate: Will the party be able to draft a winner? And will the state courts allow a replacement at this late date?

The first question may be the easier one. New Jersey law dictates that a candidate may only be replaced if he or she drops out of the race at least 51 days before the election; there are currently 35 days until the election. While it was not clear as of Tuesday afternoon whether the court would allow a substitute, it's hard to imagine that any court, even one containing, as New Jersey's does, a majority of judges appointed by Republicans, would rule against providing voters with a choice on Election Day. Hearings are scheduled for the high court on Wednesday morning, and if their argument prevails, Democrats have pledged to reveal their candidate Wednesday night or Thursday morning.

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The trouble for Democrats, who have both eyes trained on a closely divided Congress and a razor-thin majority in the U.S. Senate, began Monday afternoon. First, Sen. Torricelli announced he was dropping out of the race for his seat, citing persistent accusations of ethics violations, including charges that he took improper gifts from contributors. Then, his would-be replacements signaled they had no interest in taking the reins. By Tuesday morning, the ranks of possible candidates had shrunk dramatically. U.S. Rep. Robert Menendez, the presumed front-runner, told party elders he wasn't interested, saying he prefers to stay in the House where his clout is more assured. Former Senator (and one-time presidential candidate) Bill Bradley isn't answering his phone and no one has heard from another former Senator, Frank Lautenberg, although insiders say he is the most likely of the marquee players to run.

If they can get Lautenberg, says Ross Baker, professor of political science at Rutgers in New Brunswick, the Democrats should consider themselves lucky. "This person is going to have less than five weeks to establish a statewide name recognition, to get a campaign up and running." It's a scenario that just begs for a sacrificial lamb.

And given that grim reality, Lautenberg has the least to lose, reasons Baker. "He's not an incumbent, he has money and he has name recognition," he says. Lautenberg, who left the Senate with a clean record, is also the most likely to actually win among the ever-diminishing list of possible candidates.

At this moment, Democrats need somebody who the voters will recognize, says Gerald Pomper, emeritus Board of Governors Professor of Political Science at Rutgers’ Eagleton Institute of Politics in New Brunswick. "Lautenberg is almost like an incumbent — some voters will probably assume he's just running for reelection." Democrats' campaign coffers will open wide for someone of Lautenberg's reputation, adds Pomper, "This is a guy who can restore Democrats' faith in the Democratic Party.

And you can add one more factor in favor of Lautenberg's candidacy, says Baker. He misses the U.S. Senate. "Lautenberg feels he made a premature departure from the Senate," Baker says. "That's what tells me he would accept the offer to run." And if Lautenberg does step in, he could have a better chance of retaining Torricelli's New Jersey Senate seat than Torricelli ever did.