Constraints of NJ Senate Special Election Squeeze Out Independents

On February 14, 2013, the 89-year-old senator from New Jersey, Frank Lautenberg, announced he would not run for reelection in 2014. Although the move had been long suspected from the man who was already the oldest serving senator, the announcement set into a motion a long race to replace him among Republicans, independents, and Democrats.

However, when Lautenberg died earlier this week from complications with viral pneumonia, what had seemed like a marathon quickly became a sprint.

Leading this pack is Newark Mayor Cory Booker (D), who had already announced his intention to run in 2014 and is a star in the Democratic Party. However, in the shortened timetable for the now August primary, he faces competition from Representative Rush Holt, who announced his decision to run on the strength of the progressive wing of the party, and Representative Frank Pallone, who is also expected to jump into the race soon.

Both representatives are long-standing faces of the New Jersey Democratic Party, but face little risk if they lose the primary as they will not have to give up their congressional seats.

The Republican field is considerably weaker. Although Christie appointed Attorney General Jeff Chiesa to serve as interim replacement for Lautenberg, Chiesa has already indicated that he will not run in the special election, despite the historic boost interim appointees generally receive in elections.

Former Bogota mayor Steve Lonegan has announced his candidacy, but he is the only declared Republican candidate at the moment, which produces a noticeable gap considering Monday’s filing deadline.

In a state which is wedged between two of the most expensive media markets in the nation, a run is generally considered extraordinarily expensive. This fact, along with the relatively short election period, makes a run less likely for candidates without access to large pre-established fundraising networks.

Christie, therefore, is being blamed for both the cost of the special election (upwards of $24 million to be paid by taxpayers) as well as the timing, which excludes many other possible candidates and is a mere three weeks before his own scheduled election in the state.

Many in the state suggest that the decision for an October election is a result of the fact that a high profile Senate run could endanger Christie’s own projected margin for victory by galvanizing opposition and driving a larger voter turnout.

This appears to have deterred both Republicans, but also many independents from entering the race. Outside of the already declared candidates, the only other possibilities seem to be Beth Mason, a wealthy Democratic activist, who had a large personal fortune to finance a bid, and Sheila Oliver, who is also part of the state’s democratic machine. She currently serves as the Assembly Speaker from Essex.

The constraints of the special election are therefore hampering a more independent presence in this historic opportunity for a special election run. The jungle of New Jersey politics remains as wild as ever.