Aug. 13 Senate primary requires different campaign strategy, sets stage for October special election
New Jersey will hold a special Senate primary election on August 13 to determine the two candidates who will run to fill the seat of former New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg, who died in June at the age of 89. The two winners of the Tuesday primary will compete in a special election for senator on October 16.
When a member of the U.S. Senate dies or resigns during his or her six-year term, the vacancy must be filled. Lautenberg’s now-open term began in January 2009, so it expires in January 2015.
According to Wilson School Professor of Politics and Public Affairs Nolan McCarty, each state has different rules for how these vacancies are filled.
“Usually, vacancies are filled with a combination of the governor appointing temporary replacements and holding a special election for the next regularly scheduled election,” McCarty said.
In June, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie chose toappoint state Attorney General Jeffrey Chiesato fill the vacant seat. Chiesa, who has not expressed interest in becoming a career senator, will serve in the Senate until October.
“In the case of the current senator, the governor appointed him to be a caretaker, to fill the open position and to conduct the constituency services that senators provide, but not to play a big role in the Senate because he simply would not have time,” McCarty explained, adding that Christie appointed a longtime public servant without aspirations to stay in the Senate, and who will not run in the special election.
There are four candidates vying for the Democratic Party’s nomination: Newark Mayor Cory Booker, U.S. Representative Rush Holt, State Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver and U.S. Representative Frank Pallone.
Two candidates are facing off for the Republican Party’s nomination: political newcomer and physician Dr. Alieta Eck and former Mayor of Bogota, N.J. Steve Lonegan.
McCarty explained that governors have discretion in picking the date for the special election. Governor Christie could have chosen the special election to coincide with a statewide election on November 5, but instead picked a day when the only race on the ticket will be the race for Lautenberg’s vacant seat.
McCarty added that the special dates for the primary and general elections will cost New Jersey several million dollars and financial stress.
Additionally, McCarty said he believes voter turnout for the primary elections will be low because of the timing and lack of tension in the elections themselves.
“The general opinion is that [Cory] Booker will win the Democratic primary pretty easily, and will probably run in the special general election against a fairly weak Republican opponent and win easily,” McCarty said.
McCarty explained that because there is not much perceived difference between Booker and Holt’s positions, the election will probably boil down to name recognition and financial support -- something he argued Booker has in more ample supply than Holt.
Holt draws a different comparison with his primary opponent.
“I must say, the elephant in the room is that Booker’s celebrity does not by itself qualify him for the Senate, but he is running his campaign as if it does,” Holt said.
There have been only eight weeks between Lautenberg’s death and the special primary. Because of this uniquely-timed and unusually short window for campaigning, candidates have had to be creative in targeting voters.
“My campaign has decided to emphasize a strong focus on people who are truly engaged in government, because those are the people who are compelled to vote,” Lonegan said.
He added that his campaign has done grassroots outreach every day, with many daily engagements. Lonegan said the campaign has also focused on radio spots and direct mailings.
While Lonegan has run in elections for governor and mayor, his opponent, Eck, has had to build both name recognition and support from scratch in such a brief period.
“I run this clinic [Zarephath Health Center in Somerset], which means I have a tremendous amount of goodwill and support from people all around New Jersey,” Eck said. “People jumped to my aid when I announced I was interested in running, and my family has been a huge help, and support is continuing to rise.’
Holt, the current representative of the 12th congressional district, said running for senator of a whole state in a special election prosed different challenges than running as a representative of a specific district.
“You have to do in two months what you can normally do in two years,” Holt said. “I love to do door to door campaigning at county fairs and supermarket parking lots, but it has been challenging with only six weeks and 9 million people to reach.”
Holt said his campaign has focused on Internet and television ads, considering the low likely turnout.
Booker, Oliver and Pallone did not respond to requests for comment.
Meet the candidates: Newark Mayor Cory Booker, U.S. Representative Frank Pallone, U.S. Representative Rush Holt and State Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver are running in theDemocratic primary. Bogota, N.J. Mayor and SteveLoneganand physician Alieka Eck are running in theRepublican primary.