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Former U.S. Senator Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey

The switch

Bob Torricelli drops out and Frank Lautenberg replaces him

By David Wildstein, August 13 2019 1:47 am

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Bob Torricelli, seeking re-election to a second term in the United States Senate in 2002, was severely admonished by the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Ethics on July 31 for accepting expensive gifts from one of his campaign contributors, David Chang.

Ethics had become the predominant issue in the Senate race.

In April, the front-runner for the Republican nomination, Essex County Executive Jim Treffinger, withdrew from the race less than a week after FBI agents raided his Newark office. The raid came days after the filing deadline.

A Quinnipiac poll released on June 19 showed Torricelli with an upside-down approval rating of 35%-37%.  The same poll showed Torricelli ahead of Republican Douglas Forrester, a self-funding businessman and former West Windsor mayor, by six points, 44%-36%.

Six weeks later, the race was a statistical dead heat, with Torricelli and Forrester each tied at 37%.   Torricelli’s approvals had dropped to 28%-49%.  Forrester took a 48%-44% lead in a September 12 Quinnipiac poll, with the senator’s approval rating dropping to 31%-47%.

A Star-Ledger/Eagleton-Rutgers poll released on September 29 showed Forrester leading Torricelli by a 47%-34% margin.  That followed a Fairleigh Dickinson University poll from three days earlier that had Forrester ahead, 42%-38%.

The 3rd Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals had released a memorandum written by federal prosecutors that lent credibility to accusations made by Chang.  And WNBC-TV devoted 38 minutes without commercial interruption to a story on Torricelli’s ethics

In a move that stunned political observers in New Jersey and throughout the nation, Torricelli pulled the plug on his campaign for re-election at a statehouse press conference on September 30.

Torricelli ended his bid because attacks on his ethics made it impossible for him to talk about issues.  Democrats, who held a one-vote majority in the U.S. Senate, were concerned that Torricelli could lose this election and give the GOP control of Senate.

The announcement came twelve days after the deadline to replace Torricelli on the ballot.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which had been spending considerable funds on Torricelli’s re-election, suggested over the weekend before the withdrawal that they may be forced to reallocate monies to other close Senate races, sources said.

For national Democrats, this may have been a business decision: rather than spend money buying expensive New York and Philadelphia television time, Democrats could use those dollars to increase their chances of picking up Republican seats in New Hampshire, Arkansas and Colorado.

But even with the ethics issue dogging him, Forrester had still not been able to break 50%, suggesting that the largely unknown GOP candidate hardly has a lock on the Senate seat.

On Sunday, September 29, Torricelli went to Drumthwacket to meet with McGreevey, Corzine, and Democratic State Chairwoman Bonnie Watson Coleman, to discuss how to resuscitate his campaign.  It was at this meeting that the idea of dropping out was first broached with Torricelli.

Corzine was tasked with delivering some bad news: the DSCC, which had pledged a reported $10 million to Torricelli’s re-election, was reducing their financial commitment to $4 million.  This, the group surmised, was not enough to withstand the barrage of negative publicity about Torricelli’s ethical woes.

Democrats expressed concern that Torricelli could potentially lose by such a wide margin that it could affect some competitive local races, specifically the contest for Bergen County Executive, Mercer County Sheriff, and Freeholder races in Bergen, Mercer, Passaic and Cumberland counties.  In all but Mercer, majority control is at stake.

After giving the appearance of complete and total disarray, when one candidate after another took a pass on a chance to go to the U.S. Senate, Democrats held a press conference outside the Governor’s mansion last night to announce that Lautenberg would seek to become their replacement candidate.  He was not his party’s first choice; by some accounts, he was the #5 pick.

The pick especially irked Torricelli, who famously once said to his Senate colleague, “you’re a fucking piece of shit, and I’m going to cut your balls off.”

As PoliticsNJ reporter Steve Kornacki put it: “One of the most free-wheeling, unpredictable and downright bizarre days in New Jersey political history concluded with state Democrats turning to a figure from their past to save them in next month’s election.”

For Lautenberg, a five-week campaign is far more palatable than what he has been accustomed to, especially since he won’t need to spend years dialing for dollars.

Democrats were banking that his experience, campaign skills, fundraising contacts, personal wealth, name recognition and good will after eighteen years in office will benefit him, especially against Forrester, who still lacks name ID and who based his campaign almost entirely on being the anti-Torricelli.  A September 1999 Star-Ledger/Eagleton-Rutgers poll showed Lautenberg with an approval rating of 55%-11%.

Initially, the early favorite was five-term Rep. Bob Menendez (D-Union City), the number four member of the House Democratic leadership.

With a $2.4 million warchest, a large political base, and sharp campaign skills, many Democrats viewed Menendez as a very strong candidate.  This nomination was Menendez’s for the asking, and while his gut instinct was not to run, sources say he spent the day wrestling with the decision and weighing his options.  In the end, Menendez opted to stay in the House, where he was working with congressional candidates from around the country to help Democrats win back their majority.  He was also a candidate for House Democratic Caucus Chairman.

The 800-pound gorilla in this race seemed to be former Senator Bill Bradley, whose 1996 retirement after eighteen years in Washington paved the way for Torricelli to run statewide.

The conventional wisdom was that Bradley, popular in New Jersey even though he nearly lost his last Senate race and despite a lack of party support in his 2000 presidential bid, would be an easy winner against Forrester.

Bradley was traveling on the day of Torricelli’s withdrawal and Demcorats had difficulty reaching him. Once they got him on the phone, Bradley quickly and decisively said that he had no interest in returning to the Senate.

National Democrats, hopeful that he would change his mind, lobbied him heavily to enter the race but Bradley did not budge.  Democrats realized his candidacy was not to be, and frightened Republicans calmed down.

For a short time, it looked like McGreevey was set to go with a surprise candidate, Assembly Majority Leader Joseph Roberts (D-Bellmawr), a nine-term legislator from Camden County and the former Democratic State Chairman.  Roberts emerged as a strong contender during a late night meeting at Drumthwacket, and his candidacy had the active support of three very powerful Democrats: George Norcross, John Lynch, and Essex County Executive candidate Joseph DiVincenzo.

But Senate Democratic leaders strongly opposed a largely unknown candidate like Roberts, threatening to pull the plug on DSCC funds for the New Jersey seat.  McGreevey even enlisted his state Transportation Commissioner, Jamie Fox, a longtime Torricelli staffer and the former DSCC Executive Director, to lobby national Democratic leaders.

Still, national Democrats could not see the logic of picking Roberts, when a better-known Lautenberg appeared willing to enter the race.  Roberts issued a “thank you, but I’m not interested” statement this afternoon, although the embers of his candidacy continued throughout the day.

Democrats offered the nomination to Rep. Frank Pallone (D-Long Branch).

Pallone told McGreevey that he would accept — a fax sent out today by the DSCC was addressed from “Pallone for Senate”) — but about an hour later, after a press conference was scheduled to announce the choice, he backed out of the race.

Even sixteen years later, what happened next was an amazing turn of events.

A suspicious Pallone asked for a break.  He turned off his cell phone and took a long walk through Princeton to think about his political career.  He couldn’t help but think that being offered a U.S. Senate seat was some sort of set-up to get him out of the House.  By the time he got back to Drumthwacket, he changed his mind and said no.

Pallone got cold feet – which is a polite way of saying that the presence of Norcross and Lynch in the room when he was offered a seat in the United States Senate spooked him out.  He didn’t trust the group, especially Lynch, who tried to take him out a decade earlier when he backed now-State Sen. Bob Smith (D-Piscataway) in a Democratic primary against him in 1992.

Roberts was one of two South Jersey Democrats to receive serious consideration for the job.  The other was seven-term Rep. Rob Andrews, who enjoyed a larger base in South Jersey and a $1.3 million in his campaign account.

Andrews was hardly a favorite of Norcross or McGreevey, who had very narrowly defeated him in the 1997 gubernatorial primary.

Norcross had reportedly signed off on Andrews running for the Senate, but he became a casualty to the sudden and short-lived Roberts for Senate boon, even though some Democrats made a last-minute push for him when Pallone backed out.

Republicans were quick to attack the process, accusing party bosses of switching candidates after polls showed them likely to lose.  Lautenberg won three statewide elections but was never able to roll up huge pluralities.  The GOP said they were comfortable running against Lautenberg’s record.

The Torricelli-for-Lautenberg switch faced a series of legal hurdles as Republicans argued that the deadline to replace Senate candidates bad passed.

The New Jersey Supreme Court agreed to hear a motion on an expedited basis a couple of days after Torricelli’s withdrawal.  The conventional wisdom was that the Republicans were in the right legally, but that the state’s top court would ultimately find that the voters deserve a choice.

There were two scenarios in play: one was a five-week campaign between Forrester and Lautenberg; the second is that the Supreme Court would rule that Torricelli’s name, not Lautenberg’s, would be on the ballot.

It was unlikely that the court will allow Torricelli to take his name off the ballot and not replace it with Lautenberg.  It would be a tough sell for the Democrats to ask New Jerseyans to cast their vote for Torricelli with the promise that if re-elected he would not serve, and that McGreevey would appoint Lautenberg to fill the seat.

Angelo Genova, counsel to the Democrats, argued that the statute was open to interpretation.

New Jersey’s top court ruled unanimously that voter choice trumped a statutory deadline and that Lautenberg would be the candidate.  The court said that it was administratively feasible for county clerks to substitute Torricelli for Lautenberg on the ballot, although they said the Democratic State Committee would have to pay any costs.

The Lautenberg vs. Forrester campaign became an entirely new race.  Forrester had spent millions slamming Torricelli and had not defined himself.

McGreevey’s deputy chief of staff, 25-year-old Kevin Hagen, took a leave of absence to manage the Lautenberg campaign.

An October 7 Quinnipiac poll had Lautenberg leading Forrester, 49%-45%.  Within two weeks, the lead had grown to 52%-43%.

Lautenberg defeated Forrester by 209,439 votes, 54%-44%.

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