Lautenberg to Retire From Senate in 2000
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 18, 1999; Page A3
Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg (D-N.J.) said yesterday he will not seek a fourth term next year, surprising Democratic leaders and dimming the party's chances of regaining control of the Senate in the 2000 elections.
Although the 75-year-old lawmaker signaled only a couple of months ago that he would run again, Lautenberg said he changed his mind because he did not want to spend the next two years raising money for another campaign in one of the country's most politically expensive states.
"A powerful factor in my decision was the searing reality that I would have had to spend half of every day between now and the next election fund-raising," Lautenberg told a news conference in Newark. "To run an effective campaign, I would have to ask literally thousands of people for money. I would have had to raise $125,000 a week, or $25,000 every working day. That's about $3,000 an hour more than lots of people earn in a month distracted from the job I was hired to do."
Lautenberg, a wealthy businessman and champion of environmental, gun control and anti-smoking causes whose 1994 race cost $8.2 million, is the second senior Democrat to choose not to seek reelection next year. The first was Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (N.Y.).
While both were favored to win reelection, their decisions not to run provide openings for Republicans to pick up seats in the Democrats' Northeast stronghold and to blunt the Democratic drive to take back the Senate.
Republicans, who now hold a 55-to-45 Senate majority, moved quickly yesterday to encourage Gov. Christine Todd Whitman (R) to enter the New Jersey contest, hoping to entice the state's most prominent GOP politician into the race early to fend off any Democrat who might run.
Democrats remain hopeful about next year's Senate contests, buoyed that Republicans will be defending 19 seats, compared with 14 for the Democrats, in a marked reversal from the last few election cycles. They are also encouraged by polls showing a generic preference for Democrats over Republicans in congressional races.
Moreover, Democrats' early strategies for winning back the Senate have relied on hopes of a "big wave" in their favor, and any wave big enough to sweep Republicans out in states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Missouri ought to be big enough to carry New York and New Jersey, said political analyst Stuart Rothenberg.
But Democrats have lost ground in some recent elections because of their inability to hold open seats, especially in competitive states where GOP challengers were able to capitalize on the absence of an entrenched incumbent. "Open seats have been a real problem for Democrats for several cycles," Rothenberg noted.
Shortly after he heard about Lautenberg's decision, National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) phoned Whitman, urging her to run for the seat. McConnell said she told him she "will think about it."
In any case, McConnell said, "Democrats are going to have to fight both in New York and New Jersey to keep seats they already have, which helps our goal to keep control of the Senate for four Congresses in a row for the first time since the 1920s."
Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Robert G. Torricelli (N.J.) said Lautenberg's decision "doesn't dramatically change the situation," which he described as favorable to Democrats in 10 states where he said Republican incumbents may be vulnerable. By contrast, he said, Democrats have only three endangered seats: that of Sen. Charles S. Robb (D-Va.) and those in New York and New Jersey. Torricelli said he would reduce that number to two if first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton runs in New York.
Possible Democratic candidates in New Jersey include Rep. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), who plans a statement next week, and several other House members and local officials. Aside from Whitman, Republican possibilities include state senator William Gormley, who was gearing up to challenge Lautenberg, and former Rep. Dick Zimmer, who ran unsuccessfully against Torricelli two years ago.
Lautenberg, the senior Democrat on the Senate Budget Committee, has a generally liberal record and supported most of President Clinton's initiatives. He sponsored legislation to make 21 the legal drinking age, to ban smoking on domestic airline flights and to deny firearms to domestic violence offenders. He made environmental protection one of his major causes.
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