Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., is the Senate's oldest member at 89. / Manuel Balce Ceneta, AP
Sen. Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey has decided not to run for re-election next year, sparking what could be a contentious battle among Democrats for the open seat.
"This is not the end of anything," Lautenberg said Thursday in a statement. "While I may not be seeking re-election, there is plenty of work to do before the end of this term, and I'm going to keep fighting as hard as ever for the people of New Jersey in the U.S. Senate."
Lautenberg, 89, is the Senate's oldest member and the last World War II veteran serving in that chamber. He will make a formal announcement Friday in his hometown of Paterson.
Newark Mayor Cory Booker has declared his intention to run for the Senate next year, causing some awkwardness in the heavily Democratic state. Rep. Frank Pallone, a longtime congressman, wanted to run for the Senate if Lautenberg retired.
Lautenberg suggested Booker deserved a "spanking" for openly coveting his Senate seat and said he was sure the mayor would not be a "lone soldier" in a 2014 race. Polls by Quinnipiac, Fairleigh Dickinson and Monmouth universities show Booker would have had a substantial lead over Lautenberg in a Democratic primary.
Ruth Mandel, director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University, said Lautenberg's decision is not much of a surprise given his age.
"He's probably decided that a six-year term and a tough campaign is not the right thing for him at this stage of life," Mandel said. "He loves that position and very much regretted stepping down the last time. ... It's a realistic look at what one can do at a certain point."
Upon the news of Lautenberg's retirement, the senator won praise from both sides of the aisle.
President Obama called Lautenberg a "steadfast champion" for New Jersey. "Throughout his time in the Senate, Frank has fought tirelessly for workers, veterans, members of our military and their families, and immigrants, and he continues to make extraordinary contributions to our nation's safety," he said.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, said he always respected the senator for "his tenacity, devotion to the people of New Jersey and his love and commitment to public service." Booker called Lautenberg a "champion" for Garden State residents.
Lautenberg is on his second stint in the Senate: He represented New Jersey from 1982 to 2001, retired for a short time, then successfully ran again in 2002. He is best known for writing legislation that established a minimum blood-alcohol standard of .08 for drunken driving and for authoring the law banning smoking on airplanes.
In his statement, Lautenberg vowed that he will spend the rest of his term on gun-safety measures, legislation to protect children from toxic chemicals and efforts to create more jobs in New Jersey.
Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado, chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said he is "confident" the Senate seat will remain in his party's hands. Voters in New Jersey gave President Obama a nearly 18-point victory in November.
On the Republican side, TV and radio reporter Geraldo Rivera has said he is contemplating a race.
(Contributing: Martha T. Moore)
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