Pelosi's wild card could irk some Democrats

Published February 24, 2010 5:25PM (EST)

Nancy Pelosi’s decision to bring Rep. Rob Andrews to tomorrow’s White House healthcare summit can’t be sitting well with his New Jersey Democratic colleagues.

It was only two years ago that Andrews infuriated them by mounting a surprise, last-minute primary challenge to Sen. Frank Lautenberg – and then, when that failed, using a back-door maneuver to slink back into his House seat.

Publicly, Andrews’ Garden State colleagues -- most notably, Frank Pallone, Bill Pascrell and Steve Rothman -- were incensed that he broke his word to Lautenberg (and to them) by running for the Senate. But the real reason for their anger was simpler: They didn’t want Andrews stealing a Senate seat that they all coveted, too.

The final results of the 2008 New Jersey Senate primary suggest their angst was overstated: Lautenberg ended up crushing Andrews by 30 points. But there was actually a brief moment in April when Andrews’ challenge seemed poised to succeed. Thanks to assistance of a South Jersey Democratic power-broker (George Norcross, who hoped to place his brother, Donald, in Andrews’ House seat), Andrews struck a tentative deal for organizational support from the largest counties in the northern part of the state.

In New Jersey Democratic politics, running “on the line” in key counties can add tens of thousands of votes to a candidate's total. Had Andrews’ deal stuck, the primary result would have been far closer. Instead, Sen. Robert Menendez used his muscle to blow the deal up (in the process proving to D.C. Democrats that he could put a fire out in his own backyard, thus buttressing his credentials to succeed Chuck Schumer as DSCC chairman). That was the end of that.

But to run for the Senate, Andrews had been forced to remove his name from the primary ballot for his House seat. He insisted throughout the campaign that it was up or out for him -- either he’d win a promotion to the Senate or leave Congress for good. But his wife, Camille, ran for the Democratic nomination for his 1st District House seat. She (and he) swore it wasn’t part of some cute scheme -- that his wife would renounce the nomination after the primary and allow local Democrats to pick a new candidate for the fall. (She justified running by claiming that there hadn’t been enough time for other candidates to qualify for the primary ballot, since her husband had opted to run for the Senate at the last minute.)

You know where this is going. In the summer of ’08, some old Andrews allies from the 1st District announced that they were "asking" him to reconsider his decision to leave the House. He "reluctantly" heeded their call, and claimed the nomination (via a Democratic county committee vote) when his wife surrendered it. Republicans and editorial boards howled, and Andrews’ Democratic House colleagues even joined the pile-on. 

"This is the kind of politics that gives New Jersey a bad name," Pallone declared.

But there was nothing they could do. The 1st District is deeply blue and Andrews was reelected with ease. And now he’ll be playing a featured role at a White House summit that will be broadcast nationally on Thursday -- while Pallone (who also chairs a health subcommittee), Pascrell, Rothman and the state’s other Democratic congressmen all watch from their offices. 

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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