The vacant Senate seat created by the death of Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) could cause political chaos in a year that, until now, was expected to be relatively quiet in the Garden State.
Particularly, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie will be tasked with toeing the line between his own political ambitions and the interests of the national Republican Party when he has to decide on an interim replacement and when to hold a special election on permanently filling the seat.
For Christie, there are few good options.
“The best political option would have been for Lautenberg to live another six months,” said Nick Acocella, the editor of the New Jersey political website “Politifax.”
“Unfortunately, Frank has never been cooperative, especially with Republicans.”
The complications start with a decision Christie will have to make on when he wants to hold a special election to replace Lautenberg. According to New Jersey law — “only in New Jersey would this happen,” Acocella said — Christie’s flexibility on that is cloudy.
According to differing elements of New Jersey law, one statute would set up a special election for this November. Another statute says that the special election would be in 2014.
Christie and other Republicans would like the special election delayed so that it will not conflict with Christie’s own re-election. A potentially daunting scenario could come if Democrats decide to run Newark Mayor Cory Booker in a 2013 special election, which has the potential to increase black turnout. Booker’s name would also supersede Christie’s on the ballot.
Though Christie still has a comfortable, 30-point lead over Democratic challenger Barbara Buono in the governor’s race, throwing in Booker and his energy into November would not be a welcome addition for Christie’s race or other important state races, like in the state’s legislature.
“If he can, I think Christie will try to avoid a 2013 special. He won’t want Booker on the ballot to increase black turnout,” said one political pollster.
Christie’s decision on a special election will coincide with his appointment of an interim replacement for Lautenberg, which will also be ripe with political implications. Christie’s decision will indicate whether he is only looking to minimize political risk and appoint a so-called “placeholder,” such as former Gov. Tom Kean Sr., or if he is willing to insert himself into Washington political games and pick a fight over the seat.
It also has potential ramifications for Christie’s own future with the Republican Party, as he is often mentioned as a prime contender for the presidential nomination in 2016.
If he appoints a Republican — especially one that appeals to a Republican base with whom he has recently ruffled feathers — it could rile up Democrats, some of whom have even found the willpower to back his re-election campaign for governor. But if he appoints a moderate or even a Democrat — Booker has been thrown around as one possibility — he risks even further infuriating his Republican base.
Some of the more popular names that have been thrown out as potential appointments on the Republican side are state Senate GOP leader Tom Kean Jr., the son of the state’s popular former governor, state Sen. Joseph Kyrillos, and Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno. Kean Jr. and Kryrillos have both lost in races to Sen. Bob Menendez, New Jersey’s other U.S. senator.
One thing is clear — if Christie does try to appoint a replacement and wait to hold the special election in 2014, Democrats are almost certain to challenge him in court. Frank Askin, a law professor at Rutgers who specialises in election law, thinks they would have a good chance of winning that battle and ultimately forcing Christie’s hand in 2013.
“I think the Democrats would almost certainly challenge him — unless he appoints a Democrat,” Askin said. “And I think — in light of the contradictory statutory provisions — there would be a good chance of winning such a challenge based on the past history of the New Jersey Supreme Court on the right of the voters to choose their representatives.”
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