Christie holds key to future of NJ seat

Sen. Frank Lautenberg’s (D-N.J.) death has cast a cloud of uncertainty over the future of his seat, leaving Gov. Chris Christie (R) with a difficult choice over when — or if — he’ll set the date for a special election.

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Competing state statutes have complicated the choices confronting Christie, who is facing his own reelection this year and a potential presidential bid in 2016.

One statute suggests the Republican governor can appoint a Senate successor to serve until next year's general election, thereby avoiding a special election altogether.

Another more recent statute indicates a special election should occur on the same day as the upcoming November gubernatorial election, or a separate day this year.

The law also suggests Christie should appoint an interim successor to Lautenberg, though he's not required to do so.

A number of potential appointees have already emerged, including state Sen. Joe Kyrillos, a close friend of Christie, and state Sen. Tom Kean Jr.

Other options for an interim appointment include Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno and perhaps someone from the private sector, like attorney Bill Palatucci, who served as a Republican committeeman for New Jersey.

Any Senate appointment holds significant political implications for Christie, who is popular among both parties in New Jersey and risks hurting his favorability among Democrats if he appoints a conservative candidate to the seat.

But such a candidate could boost his fortunes with Republicans, a necessary step he'll have to take between now and 2016 if he does intend to run for president.

Christie could also appoint a centrist, who would be more competitive in a special election and would further burnish Christie's middle-of-the-road credibility.

A third option would be for the governor to appoint a caretaker who wouldn't run to keep the seat, someone who would appear above politics and could work on New Jersey issues without concern for electoral implications.

Some have even suggested Christie could appoint a Democrat to the seat — possibly Newark Mayor Cory Booker, who has a good relationship with Christie. But Republican sources in the state say that's unlikely.

The choice of an appointee would likely hinge on when Christie decides to schedule the special election to replace Lautenberg.

If the election takes place this upcoming November, there's a chance a weak Republican candidate could slightly drag down Christie's showing in a reelection race he's expected to easily win over Democrat Barbara Buono.

Republicans are also concerned that a strong Democratic candidate, along the lines of Booker, could boost Buono's performance in the gubernatorial election.

New Jersey Democratic Party Chairman John Wisniewski acknowledged the prospect of a Booker boost in a November 2013 special.

"Certainly having someone like Cory Booker on the ballot this November would augment [Buono's effort to defeat Christie] because he would bring out voters that wouldn't come out otherwise," Wisniewski told The Hill.

But Booker is not the clear nominee to run in an upcoming special.

Lacking a primary, the New Jersey State Committee would appoint a nominee to run in 2014.

While Booker is likely the strongest candidate, Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D) has also indicated an interest in running for the seat and has deeper ties within the state party, having served and campaigned for local candidates for two decades.

State Senate President Steve Sweeney (D) and state Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D), as well as Rep. Rush Holt (D), are also said to be interested in running in the special.

Wisniewski said state Democrats believe the statutes indicate the special should occur in November of this year.

Sources have said that were Christie to set the date for the special during next year's general election, Democrats would consider suing over the conflicting statutes.

But Republicans may favor that prospect.

Setting the election in November of 2014 would give Christie's appointee — should he or she plan to run to keep the seat — an opportunity to establish a record and get in a solid year of fundraising prior to what's expected to be a difficult race for Republicans.

Such a scenario would also give Republicans one more seat in the Senate during a pivotal legislative session, with Congress expected to engage in negotiations surrounding immigration reform and the debt ceiling in the coming months.

Christie has not yet given any indication of his plans to replace Lautenberg. He praised the deceased senator in an impromptu speech given at a women's forum in Trenton, N.J., on Monday.

"I give him praise for a life well-lived. I think we’d all sign up, today, for a life like Frank Lautenberg had of 89 years of fighting and fighting hard. And he’s been a great example for the people of our state, and we will certainly miss him," he said.