POLITICS
01/22/2013 01:30 pm ET Updated Jan 22, 2013

Sheila Oliver Looks To Challenge Cory Booker For U.S. Senate In New Jersey

WASHINGTON -- New Jersey's Assembly speaker has a warning for Cory Booker as the Newark mayor begins exploring a race for the U.S. Senate: Focus on New Jersey.

Sheila Oliver (D-East Orange) told The Huffington Post that she is seriously considering entering the 2014 primary race for U.S. Senate against Booker. Oliver said she sees a need to send a woman to Congress from New Jersey and added that Booker's potential ascendancy to the Senate is not a "fait accompli."

Booker has formed an exploratory committee for the 2014 race for the seat currently held by Democratic Sen. Frank Lautenberg, who has not yet indicated whether he will run again. Booker has been leading Lautenberg in polls.

Oliver, the second African-American woman to become a state legislative speaker in American history, first indicated her interest in running for the U.S. Senate last week.

Oliver told HuffPost that she would not challenge Lautenberg if the 88-year-old incumbent does run. Instead she focused her fire on Booker's national profile, including the mayor's regular appearances in national media and his 1.3 million Twitter followers.

"All politics is local," Oliver said. "National adoration does not win you a Senate seat in New Jersey."

Oliver said she would focus on Booker's work in New Jersey and Newark, rather than his national celebrity. To her mind, she said, the 2014 U.S. Senate race should revolve around who can best represent New Jersey's interests.

"I think people do not understand the local politics in New Jersey," she said. Oliver did not elaborate, but she noted that Booker's national profile would not necessarily win him support in the Garden State.

Under New Jersey's byzantine election laws, county party leaders can award the "county line" to statewide primary candidates, which then gives those candidates preferential ballot placement, along with access to county party resources. Candidates running "off the line" would need to recruit others running for countywide office to help win better ballot placement in those counties. While the "county line" has helped some statewide candidates receive higher vote totals, others have won statewide primaries without holding the designation.

With or without New Jersey's county lines, Booker's national profile -- and his contacts with potential big money donors -- could generate a windfall in campaign contributions for the Newark mayor. In Massachusetts, for example, Elizabeth Warren used national backing from the progressive community to fundraise in her successful race last year against former Sen. Scott Brown.

Oliver said Booker's fundraising potential does not scare her, noting that former Gov. Jon Corzine (D), who is independently wealthy, outspent now-Gov. Chris Christie (R) in 2009 and still lost. "Money does not translate into votes. Jon Corzine taught us that," she said.

Oliver is not the only New Jersey Democrat looking to challenge Booker if Lautenberg does not run. U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone is considered a potential candidate, but he told HuffPost that he is focused on his work on Congress and not 2014.

Booker, Oliver and Pallone were all in attendance at Sunday's New Jersey State Society Inaugural Ball in Washington, though the latter two did not draw the same level of excitement as Booker. The Newark mayor seemed to be a star during his brief appearance, with guests clamoring to take a photo with him. Lautenberg was not present at the event, but several of his aides attended.

Booker, who was escorted by several bodyguards, deflected media questions on 2014, saying he was focused on President Obama.

While the 2014 focus remains on the more fluid Democratic side, several Republicans are considered potential U.S. Senate candidates, including Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, U.S. Rep. Leonard Lance, state Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean, Jr., state Sen. Mike Doherty and Assemblyman Jay Webber. Kean unsuccessfully ran for the U.S. Senate in 2006.

New Jersey is also set for a gubernatorial battle this year, and Oliver stressed that Democrats' attention should shift from 2014 Senate speculation to the coming fight against Christie. That view is shared by other Democrats, including state Democratic Party Chairman John Wisniewski.

"I was not pleased with so much focus on the U.S. Senate race when we have a governor's race," Oliver said.

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