We here at The Fix are — admittedly — a fan of the political parlor game. We’re always looking for the next big thing in politics, the next potential president, senator or governor.
So when Newark Mayor Cory Booker saves his neighbor from a burning house, needless to say, we take notice.
The episode was simply the latest in a long line in a storybook-like political rise, and Booker has long been the subject of speculation about his future. As a young, telegenic, social media-savvy (more than one million Twitter followers) and popular mayor just across the river from New York City, he’s hard to ignore.
The question for a long time, then, has been is what is next for Booker.
The problem, though, is that his state isn’t great for a rising star.
At 42 years old, the former Stanford University football tight end and son of two of the first black executives at IBM has the profile of an up-and-comer. He’s got a Yale law degree, is a Rhodes scholar, and was even the hero of a great documentary about his (ultimately unsuccessful) 2002 mayoral run, called “Street Fight,” as well as TV show, “Brick City.”
He eventually won the office in 2006, and had sky-high approval ratings for much of his first term. A recent poll from Fairleigh Dickinson University showed his statewide profile is gaining steam too, with 39 percent having a favorable opinion of him, compared to just 8 percent who have an unfavorable one.
That has made him the most-talked-about potential opponent for Gov. Chris Christie (R) in 2013, and a potential successor to Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D) in 2014.
But it’s not quite so simple.
Opportunities for upward movement are rare in New Jersey, which has only three elected statewide offices — governor and the two Senate seats — and there are plenty of Democrats who are also waiting in the wings because they have had nothing else to run for.
Lautenberg, who will turn 90 years old in 2014 and was diagnosed with stomach cancer in 2010, has nonetheless indicated that he might well pursue another term in the Senate. He turned aside a primary challenge from Rep. Robert Andrews in 2008, and state Senate President Steve Sweeney has already moved to form an exploratory committee for the 2014 race.
Booker, too, has formed a political action committee, but that can’t raise money directly for a Senate campaign. And if Sweeney’s very early 2014 moves indicate anything, it’s that more established Democrats aren’t just going to step aside for the young shiny new thing.
As for a potential governor run next year, that may be unlikely too. Booker has forged a pretty unlikely bipartisan alliance with Christie, which has included daily communication and plenty of praise-heaping, so it seems less likely that he would run against him.
What’s more, the governor is very popular in the most recent Quinnipiac University poll of the state, with 59 percent approving of his performance. That’s not a number that any potential challenger wants to see.
If Booker wants to run for governor, now is about the time to start ramping up, with Election Day just 19 short months away.
(Of course, if Christie is selected as the GOP’s vice presidential nominee and the ticket wins — or if he doesn’t seek reelection — that will change things in a hurry.)
Beyond those two seats, the next opportunities would be a run for president in 2016 (which would be difficult with only a mayoral stint on his resume), a governor run in 2017 or a Senate run in 2018. But that seat is held by Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), who is just 58 years old and figures to be around for a while.
Booker has lots of time, of course, but he’s somewhat restrained by the political realities of his state, which may make what appears to be a meteoric, almost Obama-like rise less likely.
Of course, saving people from fires certainly isn’t hurting.