Lautenberg Vacancy Pick Is Christie’s Political Challenge

The death of New Jersey Democratic Senator Frank Lautenberg has thrust a politically challenging series of decisions upon Chris Christie, the state’s Republican governor.

Christie must choose an interim replacement for Lautenberg and set a date for electing a permanent one, all while seeking another term himself in a state that backed President Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election by 17 percentage points and hasn’t had a Republican senator in more than three decades.

Christie told reporters this morning after voting in the state’s primary election that he plans to discuss the process for filling Lautenberg’s seat at a 1:30 p.m. news conference in Trenton, according to the Associated Press. The governor didn’t say he would be announcing a successor, the AP said.

New Jersey’s partisan bent makes it likely that a Democrat will ultimately replace Lautenberg, who died yesterday at age 89 of complications from pneumonia. The choices in the meantime before Christie, an often-mentioned potential presidential contender in 2016, carry murky consequences for his future.

“Christie’s appointment will be in a sense a test of his own philosophy and will say something about him,” said G. Terry Madonna, a political scientist and the director of the Center for Politics & Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. “The safest thing would be to choose a neutral placeholder from his party, but he’s never been known for taking the safe route.”

Immigration Debate

In the shorter term, Christie’s choice could affect the outcome of the congressional debate over revising U.S. immigration laws and providing a pathway to citizenship for the estimated 11 million immigrants residing in the U.S. without authorization. That legislation, which Lautenberg backed, is headed for the Senate floor next week.

Christie has said he supports a “clear” path to legalization, and if he chooses a successor sharing that view, he could add a coveted Republican “yes” vote on potentially the biggest domestic issue of 2013 and a top Obama priority.

With Lautenberg’s vacancy, Democrats have a controlling Senate majority of 54 seats compared with 45 Republicans.

Placating Republicans

If Christie follows tradition, he will appoint a close ally, even with his state’s Democratic leanings. Among Republicans prominently mentioned as appointee candidates are state Senator Tom Kean Jr., the son of former New Jersey Governor Tom Kean and the party’s 2006 Senate nominee; state Senator Joe Kyrillos, a confidant who was the party’s 2012 Senate nominee; and state Senator Kevin O’Toole. Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno, Christie’s 2009 running mate who again is sharing the ticket with him, also has been mentioned.

Staying within the party could shore up Christie’s support among Republicans, some of whom regarded his praise of Obama’s response to Hurricane Sandy a week before last November’s election as a betrayal that harmed the party’s presidential nominee, Mitt Romney.

Yet Christie also needs the support of New Jersey Democrats if he wants to win a second term in this November’s vote. He has been campaigning as a bipartisan governor capable of reaching across the aisle to accomplish major initiatives in a state controlled by his political rivals.

‘Political Hack’

If he wants to strengthen that pitch, Christie might opt to tap a Democrat -- and risk enraging Republican activists he’ll need if he enters the 2016 presidential primary.

“The downside is that he’d signal national Republicans he’s not on their team,” said government professor Peter Woolley of Fairleigh Dickinson University in Madison, New Jersey. “You’d give up two things: a vote in the Senate to help them over the next year, and it would be basically conceding that seat next year. That’s probably the worse offense of the two.”

In comments yesterday at the Patriots Theater in Trenton, Christie alluded to his political differences with Lautenberg -- a feisty partisan best known for championing gun-control measures and authoring laws banning smoking on airplanes -- even as he complimented the Democrat’s combative spirit.

“It’s no mystery that Senator Lautenberg and I didn’t always agree; in fact, it’s probably more honest to say that we very often didn’t agree,” Christie said, adding that the two had “some pretty good fights.” In March 2012, Christie called Lautenberg a “political hack” and urged him to retire.

“But never was Senator Lautenberg to be underestimated as an advocate of the causes he believed in,” Christie said. “Senator Lautenberg fought for the things he believed in. Sometimes he just fought because he liked to.”

Contradictory Laws

Christie also faces a complicated and potentially legally fraught decision about the timing of the election to replace Lautenberg, who had announced in February he wouldn’t seek re-election next year.

New Jersey has two contradictory laws on the subject, one that would set a special election on Nov. 5 of this year -- when Christie himself will be on the ballot -- and one that would require the vacancy to be filled on the next general-election date, Nov. 4, 2014, or on a special-election date of Christie’s choosing.

New Jersey’s governor has discretion in setting an election date as he appoints an interim replacement, according to a ruling yesterday by the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services in Trenton. The pick could serve until the November 2014 general election or Christie could schedule an earlier special election, said the memo obtained by Bloomberg News.

Cory Booker

Newark’s Democratic Mayor Cory Booker, who weighed a challenge to Christie in the gubernatorial race, is preparing to seek Lautenberg’s seat, and U.S. Representative Frank Pallone, another Democrat, is said to be considering a bid.

If Christie opted for a special election this year, the race would play out in conjunction with his, complete with Booker’s name likely appearing on the ballot. That could bring a flood of Democratic money and attention to the state that could harm Christie’s re-election prospects.

One Washington-based Republican strategist who requested anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to discuss the vacancy said Republicans would prefer that Christie name a replacement and set the election for 2014.

‘Ugly’ Primary

People close to Christie say he is debating whether to merely name a placeholder and allow voters to choose a new senator or pick somebody who might be able to compete against Booker, who is regarded by Republicans as difficult to beat, according to a strategist who requested anonymity to describe private conversations.

Republicans sought to put the best face on Christie’s election-scheduling dilemma, saying whichever date he chooses, their party would benefit -- whether by rushing Democrats into a possibly divisive primary or allowing a Republican appointee time to gain an advantage in a 2014 race.

“Should the election be held in 2013, it means a potentially ugly and quick Democratic primary sprint between Cory Booker, Rob Andrews and Frank Pallone,” said Brad Dayspring, a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, mentioning a second Democratic House member who ran unsuccessfully against Lautenberg for his party’s Senate nomination in 2008. “Should it be in 2014, it potentially allows a Republican to build trust and name identification with voters depending upon whom the governor selects.”

Legal Matter

Christie is also weighing which of those options is better from a legal standpoint, and won’t begin whittling down his list of potential appointees until he decides on the process, according to a Republican operative who wasn’t authorized to publicly discuss the matter.

The decision could spark a legal battle in New Jersey’s Supreme Court, which generally interprets election laws in a way most likely to favor people’s right to vote, said Donald Scarinci, who specializes in government affairs and is based in Lyndhurst, New Jersey, as a managing partner with the firm of Scarinci Hollenbeck.

“This has not occurred many times in New Jersey history,” Scarinci said in an interview. “I’m not sure he has an option to appoint someone who’d serve for 18 months” through to the 2014 general election, “and if he were to do that, I think it’s unlikely to be sustained.”

Massachusetts Example

Democratic Governor Deval Patrick of Massachusetts, whose state is also solidly Democratic, twice opted for the placeholder approach when naming interim Senate successors in recent years.

Patrick appointed William “Mo” Cowan, his former chief of staff, to temporarily replace John Kerry, who left the Senate early this year to become Secretary of State. Cowan said he had no intention of running for the seat in the June 25 special election. Following the August 2009 death of Senator Edward Kennedy, Patrick filled the seat with Paul G. Kirk Jr. -- who similarly had no designs to seek it in special election held a few months later.

Woolley said that for Christie, “The tug-of-war for him is on one hand to satisfy as many of the people who are going to be standing outside his door wanting that seat, while on the other hand to satisfy his legacy as a governor with this opportunity.”

“I don’t doubt there a long list people who would like to look Christie in the eye and ask him for it,” Woolley said.

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