N.J. Senate Race: For First Time, NSA Surveillance Is Major Election Issue

Senate contestants lay out positions ahead of Tuesday vote.

Newark Mayor Cory Booker, Rep. Rush Holt, Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver and Rep. Frank Pallone debate at Montclair State University, Aug. 5, 2013.
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New Jersey voters are selecting major-party candidates Tuesday for the Oct. 16 special election for U.S. Senate to replace Sen. Frank Lautenberg, who died June 3. It is the first election for a national-level job since former NSA contractor Edward Snowden in June exposed massive government phone and Internet surveillance programs.

Four Democrats are vying for the party's Senate nomination and Rep. Rush Holt is by far the NSA's most vocal critic.

"They're stretching the law or outright exceeding the bounds of the law," Holt told U.S. News. "We owe this recent increase in attention to Snowden and [Guardian reporter Glenn] Greenwald."

Holt voted for the Amash amendment last month to defund the bulk collection of American phone records and introduced the "Surveillance State Repeal Act" to go a step further by repealing the Patriot Act and the FISA Amendments Act of 2008.

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Rep. Frank Pallone, another Democrat vying for the Senate job, was one of 12 congressmen who did not vote on the Amash amendment, which was defeated in the House of Representatives July 24 by 12 votes.

"I have serious concerns with the federal government's warrantless wiretapping plan," Pallone said in a statement provided to U.S. News by his Senate campaign. "The Senate needs to investigate and ultimately rein in the National Security Agency's program. The U.S. should not run a secret monitoring program against our own citizens without any cause for suspicion."

Pallone voted against extending sections of the Patriot Act in 2011 and against extending controversial FISA amendments in 2012. He told U.S. News the Amash amendment would be "a step in the right direction."

Newark Mayor Cory Booker, the Democratic primary's front-runner, says on his campaign website he supports increased oversight and discussion about the NSA programs.

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Booker did not support the Amash amendment, his Senate campaign spokesman Kevin Griffis told The Star-Ledger in July.

But Booker "believes that we must amend the Patriot Act and Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act in order to strike a better balance between privacy and security," Griffis told U.S. News. "For example, he is concerned that certain Patriot Act provisions, namely sections 206 and 215, create an exceptionally high risk to the privacy rights of Americans, and deserve renewed debate. He also believes that FISA court judges should not be appointed exclusively by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court due to concerns of ideological uniformity."

Section 215 of the Patriot Act – utilized by the government to vacuum up "business records", such as cell phone metadata – was targeted by the Amash amendment. Section 206 allows "roving" wiretaps without a named target.

Holt isn't impressed by his competition.

"It's one thing to say we should have a debate, it's another thing to say this has to stop now," he said. "Mayor Booker says this is something we should shed light on and debate and Rep. Pallone says, 'I don't like the Patriot Act either,' but in neither case do I consider that supporting the stopping of warrantless spying on Americans."

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The fourth Democrat in the race, state Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver, says on her campaign website, "we've gone a step too far and that we must work to ensure that the privacy of law abiding citizens is protected."

The latest poll on the race by Quinnipiac University shows Booker with a projected 54 percent of the primary vote. Pallone stood at 17 percent and Holt at 15 percent. Oliver trailed with just 5 percent.

The non-Booker Democrats stress that low turnout could swing the election their way. Holt is airing ads touting himself as the most progressive candidate and Pallone is highlighting endorsements from Lautenberg's family.

If Booker does prevail, he will almost certainly face Republican Steve Lonegan in the October election. Lonegan is the former mayor of 8,000-person Bogota, N.J., and leads his only GOP opponent by 64 percentage points, according to Quinnipiac.