Sen. Lautenberg has stomach cancer

86-year-old Democrat's health has been the source of speculation in New Jersey since 2002

Published February 19, 2010 5:20PM (EST)

Frank Lautenberg  (AP)
Frank Lautenberg (AP)

The (Newark) Star-Ledger is reporting that New Jersey Sen. Frank Lautenberg was diagnosed with stomach cancer "within the last 24 hours" and that the 86-year-old Democrat expects to make a recovery and return to work quickly -- and to seek re-election in 2014.

Lautenberg's health has been the subject of considerable chatter and speculation in Garden State political circles since 2002, when he made an unexpected return to the Senate. (After three terms in office, he'd retired in 2000 -- fearing a rough general election battle with then-Gov. Christine Todd Whitman -- only to be tapped by state Democrats as their emergency replacement candidate when Sen. Robert Torricelli dropped out five weeks before the '02 election.)

If he were to vacate his seat, the state's new Republican governor, Christopher J. Christie, would appoint a successor, who would serve until a special election (which would coincide with the next regularly scheduled general election). The assumption among New Jersey insiders is that Christie would pick his lieutenant governor, Kim Guadagno, a former sheriff and federal prosecutor. Guadagno is the state's first-ever lieutenant governor. Christie chose her to run with him after last June's GOP primary, and her name appeared with his on the November ballot -- so she's yet to win a statewide primary or general election in her own right.

After Christie won last November, some Democrats in the state legislature made noise about changing the Senate succession law to either strip Christie of the ability to pick a successor or to speed up the special election after any appointment was made. Christie strongly opposed the move and it quickly fizzled, with Democrats fearing it would incite a voter backlash.

New Jersey's last Republican senator was Nicholas Brady, who was appointed by Governor Tom Kean to replace Democrat Harrison Williams in 1982. Kean appointed Brady as a caretaker; he did not run for a full term that fall, when Lautenberg won the seat by defeating Republican Millicent Fenwick. The last Republican to win a Senate election in New Jersey was Clifford Case, back in 1972.

After Lautenberg returned to the Senate in '02, several Democrats -- including Reps. Steve Rothman and then-state Senator (and now Congressman) John Adler -- began making moves to succeed him in 2008, believing he would be too old to run again. But Lautenberg thumbed his nose at them and ran anyway, drawing a last-minute primary challenge from Rep. Rob Andrews. But, with an assist from Sen. Bob Menendez, Lautenberg kept the state's powerful county Democratic organizations in line and beat back Andrews' challenge with ease.

By Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki is an MSNBC host and political correspondent. Previously, he hosted “Up with Steve Kornacki” on Saturday and Sunday 8-10 a.m. ET and was a co-host on MSNBC’s ensemble show “The Cycle.” He has written for the New York Observer, covered Congress for Roll Call, and was the politics editor for Salon. His book, which focuses on the political history of the 1990s, is due out in 2017.

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