National Democrats are hoping that a longtime Jewish lawmaker and former UJA national chairman can rescue a Senate seat that is in danger of falling to the Republicans.
On Tuesday former Sen. Frank Lautenberg agreed to replace Sen. Robert Torricelli, whose bid for a second term was abruptly aborted in the face of corruption charges and polls showing him running well behind Republican newcomer Douglas Forrester, as the Democratic nominee.
The bizarre race has taken on national importance because of the Democrats one-vote majority in the Senate and polls showing the Republicans with a good chance to regain control of the Senate while holding on to the House.
“It’s a razor-thin margin, and the Democrats were counting on this seat as safe,” said Kean University political scientist Gilbert
Kahn. “This was once considered a safe seat for the Democrats, but now it’s up in the air, so it’s become absolutely critical. The question is, can Lautenberg get a campaign organized in time to focus the voters?”
Torricelli withdrew on Monday in the face of plunging poll ratings after he was slapped by the Senate Ethics Committee for accepting gifts from a controversial campaign contributor in 1996.
Lautenberg agreed to fill in on the ticket after several other potential nominees —including former senator and presidential hopeful Bill Bradley and Rep. Frank Pallone — turned down offers by Gov. James E. McGreevey, a Democrat. IF elected he would be the 11th Jewish members of the Senate.
Almost immediately, the election was tangled in legal proceedings. On Wednesday lawyers representing the Democrats petitioned the state high court to allow Lautenberg’s name on the ballot for the Nov. 5 election, even though Sept. 16 was the deadline for filing ballot changes. Republicans, citing already-sent-absentee ballots, are opposing the change.
Any ruling is likely to be appealed, and the case could end up before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Lautenberg, a champion of Jewish domestic and foreign policy causes, retired from the Senate in 2000 after three terms, citing the exhausting process of raising a big campaign war chest.
But sources say the former lawmaker has been restless since his departure from Washington.
Shortly after his retirement he was appointed special adviser to the chairman of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council. Lautenberg was a member of the original Presidential Commission on the Holocaust, the predecessor to the council and the panel that laid the groundwork for the Holocaust Museum on Washington’s Mall. Lautenberg also served on the council.
The new candidate earned a fortune in data processing, leaving Automatic Data Processing in 1982 to run for the Senate.
During his 18 years in the Senate, Lautenberg carved out a reputation as a supporter of health and environmental programs and transportation projects. He was also a strong pro-choice voice in the Senate and a supporter of tougher gun control laws.
Morris Amitay, a top pro-Israel political funder, said that Lautenberg was “a consistent friend” to pro-Israel forces. “But he did not take the lead on pro-Israel issues,” he said. “Major initiatives did not bear his name. His focus was always domestic — transportation and things like that.”
Amitay described the radically changed race as a “no-lose” situation for pro-Israel voters. “There’s every reason to think Forrester, who has visited Israel, would be a strong friend, but Lautenberg also has a fine record,” he said.
Many analysts say Lautenberg’s age — he is 78, while his opponent is 49 — will be a factor in the upcoming race.
Amitay rejected those claims. “In Washington, they equate age with wisdom,” he said, citing several sitting senators who are considerably older than Lautenberg.
A prominent political consultant said that any Republican attempt to exploit Lautenberg’s age could backfire.
“It’s a very ugly issue in a state with a lot of older people,” he said. “Lautenberg’s age would be a factor only if he is bumbling in a debate and I don’t see that happening.”
During his time in the Senate Lautenberg championed a number of Jewish causes.
In 1987 he was author of an amendment forcing the armed forces to allow “neat and conservative” religious apparel — commonly known as the “yarmulke amendment.”
He was also a strong supporter of compensation for victims of terrorism, and was author of the “Lautenberg Amendment” — a 1989 law that made it easier for Soviet Jews to win refugee status.
“The Lautenberg amendment enabled thousands of Jews and others from the Soviet Union to be assessed as refugees by the U.S. government decades after so many from Europe were denied that consideration,” said Shai Franklin, director of government relations for NCSJ, a Soviet Jewry group.
In 1991 the lawmaker was denied a visa to visit Saudi Arabia because his passport contained a stamp from Israel. That led Lautenberg to introduce a bill forcing the State Department to end its policy of distributing dual passports to officials working in the Middle East, a practice he claimed represented backhanded compliance with the Arab boycott against Israel.
Kean University political scientist Gilbert Kahn said that Forrester is vulnerable to a strong Lautenberg campaign.
“My guess is that the average New Jersey voter has yet to get a reading on Forrester,” he said. “There isn’t much sense of who he is; his position in the polls is mostly a measure of anti-Torricelli feeling.”
Lautenberg’s high name recognition is “a major factor at this point,” Kahn said.
He said Lautenberg’s strong Jewish connections could also prove important. “He will focus that part of the Jewish vote that may have drifted in Forrester’s direction,” he said. “That’s a very important factor in a state with a big Jewish population.”