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Is Robert Andrews Crazy to Take On Frank Lautenberg?

Many years ago, as a newly minted Ph.D., I had the good fortune to spend three years teaching political science at Bucknell University. At the end of my first year, a departmental review committee evaluated my performance. The student member of that committee was Rob Andrews — now Rep. Robert Andrews (D-N.J.).

I was not at all surprised when Andrews recently announced that he would challenge Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) this year. Although Andrews’ announcement was not expected, and I had no early knowledge of it, the Democratic Congressman has already run statewide once and has made no secret over the years of his desire to seek higher office.

The immediate reaction inside the Beltway was predictable: Had Andrews lost his mind, challenging an incumbent member of his own party?

Andrews’ six Garden State House Democratic colleagues immediately fired off a letter to him asserting that he “has failed to gain the necessary support to realistically compete in this race” and demanding that he drop his Senate bid.

Is Andrews crazy to take on Lautenberg? And why on earth would the state’s Democratic House Members sound so hysterical in denouncing what they see as a Don Quixote-like effort?

Andrews, who certainly was one of the brightest students at Bucknell when I was on the faculty, acknowledges that he is an underdog in the race. And he is.

Lautenberg, 84, is serving his fourth (nonconsecutive) term, is personally wealthy (though hesitant to spend his own money) and is running in a state squeezed between the expensive New York City and Philadelphia media markets. He has the support of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and showed $4.3 million in the bank at the end of December.

Andrews, on the other hand, had just less than $2.4 million in the bank at the end of last year, represents a South Jersey Congressional district and is not widely known in the important northern third of the state. He lost his only statewide bid, for governor, in the 1997 Democratic primary by a nose.

A Benenson Strategy Group poll from early April for the DSCC found Lautenberg’s job approval among Democrats at 76 percent, while 57 percent said they would vote to re-elect him and only 12 percent said they would not. In the ballot test, Lautenberg led 52 percent to 21 percent.

“Andrews looks to have no clear path to victory,” the polling memo says.

Here’s why Lautenberg should be concerned: Andrews is smart and analytical, and he wouldn’t have jumped into the race without looking at every angle six ways to Sunday. He’s not a flake and not an ideologue on a mission. He’s not Dennis Kucinich or Mike Gravel.

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