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For Congressman, the Future May Not Be Now

Eight weeks ago, Rep. Robert Andrews admitted that he was the underdog in his upstart bid to knock off Sen. Frank Lautenberg in New Jersey’s Senate Democratic primary, and as voters head to the polls today an upset doesn’t appear to be in the making.

Public polling numbers have not been kind to Andrews and only seems to confirm the conventional wisdom that although he’s picked up pockets of support outside his southern New Jersey base, the Democratic institutional support that Lautenberg has maintained from the beginning of the race will propel him to victory.

So if, as many state and national political pundits expect, the South Jersey Congressman loses today, the question then becomes, what comes next for Andrews?

When the nine-term Congressman surprised most of the Garden State political establishment in early April by announcing his intent to challenge the sitting Senator, he made a point of stating that he had no intention of looking back to the House of Representatives.

“I am running to win the Senate race, and I’m not running for the House,” Andrews said in several interviews at the time. “Win or lose, I am not running for the House.”

It sounds definitive, but nothing is ever that simple in politics — particularly in New Jersey.

Several Garden State Democrats on Capitol Hill wondered Monday whether Andrews might have left himself some wiggle room to return to the House seat, where he remains very popular, even though he said he’s not “running” for the House.

Indeed, he might well be asked back by local party officials.

Skepticism about whether Andrews was working with Southern New Jersey Democratic Party bosses to create a safety net for himself emerged when the 1st district Democratic machine lined up behind the lawmaker’s wife, Rutgers University Law School Associate Dean Camille Andrews, as the party’s replacement in his Camden-based seat.

Camille Andrews is expected to win her own primary today, but party bosses have said from the beginning that she could be just a placeholder candidate.

The Democratic county chairmen promised in early April to undertake “a full and deliberative process to fill this nomination” and have said that they are considering several potential candidates, including Camille Andrews, to find the best choice for the district.

But skeptical Lautenberg supporters say that the apparent lack of movement on that candidate search is an indication that Andrews and his local party cronies have a plan in place to hand the seat back to the Congressman.

“You don’t hear word one down there about who they are looking to replace [Camille Andrews] with,” one New Jersey Democratic Congressional aide said Monday. “So it’s either going to be her, or it’s going to be him.”

Andrews spokesman Bill Caruso said Monday that there’s a very good reason why party leaders have put their 1st district search process on the back burner.

“The reason why you haven’t heard about any of this is that the party down here in the South, in the 1st Congressional district specifically, isn’t focused on who replaces Rob — they are focused on getting Rob elected to the Senate,” Caruso said.

With a low turnout expected today, Caruso said the excitement that Andrews’ Senate campaign has generated in his southern base combined with the growing pockets of support he’s found in the north would carry the Congressman to the Senate nomination today.

And after that happens the party will then be able to take a breath and decide what to do about Camille Andrews seat, he said.

“There was never a move to move her off the ballot before the election,” Caruso said. “There are probably over 30 people that would be in the running to replace Rob in his House seat and to make the choice at this point would have been silly.”

If Andrews were to lose and return to the House he would have to do so as the black sheep of the delegation.

Since he surprised his fellow Democratic delegation members with his Senate bid, Andrews has seen his Garden State colleagues — some of whom have also had their eye on one day taking Lautenberg’s seat — wage a ruthless campaign against him. At first they tried to get him to drop his bid by publicly calling his campaign neither realistic nor helpful to the party. But when it became clear that Andrews wouldn’t fold, they pledged their support and their checkbooks to Lautenberg’s cause.

Some of those Members have spent tens of thousands of dollars on joint mailings, robocalls and even joint radio ads for Lautenberg.

“He’s definitely burned a lot of bridges and caused a lot of additional work when people already had a lot of work to do,” one Garden State Democratic Hill staffer said of Andrews.

“You’ll see that all of [the Democratic delegation Members] have spent more money in this quarter than they’ve spent in a long time,” another New Jersey Democratic aide said. “And all these donors who gave money to Lautenberg and to Andrews, that’s money that could have gone elsewhere,” a fact that certainly can’t sit well with party leaders looking to expand their majority this fall.

But depending on his performance in today’s race, Andrews could still be a viable New Jersey political figure in the future even if he does lose. If Andrews can hold Lautenberg to a close race — perhaps with a margin in the mid-single digits — he would be seen as a force in statewide politics. With that showing, Andrews could be a possible contender for an open gubernatorial race if Gov. Jon Corzine (D) doesn’t run again in 2009. If Corzine does run again, he might even consider Andrews — who was passed over for a Senate seat when Corzine left Congress — as lieutenant governor (a new office in New Jersey that will be filled for the first time in 2009).

But even a blowout loss might not finish Andrews’ Congressional career.

Whatever animosity that has been stirred up might be forgotten over time if Andrews finishes his term and takes some time off from Congress to give the party wounds created this spring time to heal. He might return to his previous profession of teaching or take the well tread path of a Member turned lobbyist. At age 50, Andrews is a relatively young man (a fact that he has gone to lengths to emphasize in his race against the 84-year-old incumbent), so he still has plenty of good years left if he loses today.

As one Garden State aide said Monday, “People tend to be rehabbed in New Jersey sometimes so it’s hard to rule anyone out in New Jersey politics.”

That’s certainly true of the likely Republican Senate nominee, ex-Rep. Dick Zimmer. He lost a Senate race in 1996 and is trying again a dozen years later.

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