Christie’s Choice: Lautenberg’s Death Leaves Gov A Tricky Pick

June 3, 2013 12:59 p.m.

Sen. Frank Lautenberg’s death Monday morning sets up a complicated succession process that will have implications for two Garden State politicians widely believed to hold national ambitions: Gov. Chris Christie (R) and Newark Mayor Cory Booker (D).

With Lautenberg’s passing, it falls to Christie to appoint a temporary replacement and to decide when to schedule the election to replace Lautenberg, both while he faces his own re-election in November and tries to build his brand on the national stage. Booker, who all-but officially announced his decision to run for Lautenberg’s seat in December, may find himself simultaneously facing off against Christie’s chosen successor and confronting the consequences of the stormy relationship he had with Lautenberg prior to the senator’s death.The first question is who Christie might name as Lautenburg’s interim successor.

A New Jersey Republican Party official and multiple other insiders all suggested two Republican state senators — Joe Kyrillos and Thomas Kean, Jr. — as Christie’s most likely choices to serve as an interim replacement for Lautenberg. Both men have previously been nominated by the New Jersey Republican Party and unsuccessfully run for Senate. Kyrillos lost to Sen. Bob Menendez (NJ-D) in 2012. Kean lost to Menendez in 2006.

Christie and Kyrillos have known each other for over two decades. In 2009, Kyrillos served as the chairman of Christie’s gubernatorial bid. Christie fundraised and campaigned for Kyrillos in 2012, though he was seen as relatively absent in that race. Christie also has a good relationship with Kean’s father, former Gov. Tom Kean, Sr., who served as the honorary state chairman of Christie’s 2009 campaign.

Christie’s personal relationships with the prospective replacements for Lautenberg can’t be his only concern as he contemplates his decision. With Christie’s long-rumored presidential aspirations, he will have to choose someone he’s confident will play well on the national stage and not complicate his reputation as a tough-talking conservative who’s willing to make bipartisan compromises.

The second issue is when the election for a permanent successor will take place. Christie’s chosen heir for Lautenberg will remain in office until an election is held, but the timing of that vote could be up to Christie.

A political insider said rumors are currently circulating the Jersey statehouse that Christie may be looking into an option that would allow him to appoint someone who could serve out the remainder of Lautenberg’s term and wouldn’t have to face election until 2014.

According to Politicker NJ, Democrats and Republicans are pushing dueling interpretations of state election law with regard to the appointment.

The interpretation of state law favored by Democrats seemingly requires the Senate election to be held at the next scheduled general election, which is Nov. 5.

Republicans are reportedly pointing towards another statute that calls for Senate vacancies to be filled in the next general election unless the vacancy occurs “within 70 days next preceding the primary election prior to the general election in which case it shall be filled by election at the second succeeding election.” Under this statute, with the primary in Jersey’s upcoming general being held tomorrow, the election for Lautenberg’s successor could be put off until “the second succeeding election,” or November 2014.

Neither the governor’s office or the New Jersey Department of State’s Division of Elections shed any light on how Christie is planning to handle the question of the vote for Lautenberg’s replacement. The governor’s office referred all of TPM’s inquiries to the Division of Elections, which in turn, referred us back to the governor’s office.

Letting the Senate election happen this year would seem to come with potential pitfalls for Christie, who is facing his own re-election race. Currently, Christie is way ahead of his rival in the gubernatorial campaign, state Sen. Barbara Buono. In addition to a more than thirty point lead in multiple recent polls, Christie has drawn the support of Democratic fundraisers in the Garden State. However, a New Jersey Democratic operative who spoke with TPM said the addition of a Senate race to the calendar is problematic for Christie for several reasons. The operative suggested adding the Senate to the mix could force Christie to face off against a ticket that includes Booker, who has a far higher profile than Buono, causing increased voter turnout that could cut into Christie’s lead. They also suggested some of the Democratic donors and local leaders who have warmed to Christie could shy away from him in the leadup to election day if the race became a question of the party’s position in Washington rather than just a provincial concern.

“That is potentially a worst-case scenario for Christie,” the operative said, before adding, “In a world, where he’s up by thirty that is, this is the worst case scenario.”

Prior to Lautenberg’s death, Booker seemed to be the leading candidate to replace him. In February, Lautenberg announced he would retire rather than run for re-election next year. However, Booker didn’t wait for Lautenberg to make that decision before announcing he was going to “explore the possibility” of running for the senator’s seat in 2014. Booker’s hasty entrance into the race rankled Lautenberg and others in the Garden State Democratic establishment. Booker did not respond to a request for comment on this story.

A New Jersey Democratic strategist who talked with TPM suggested Lautenberg’s death would make bringing up how Booker treated him in his final months an especially potent attack for rivals coming from either side of the aisle. Another oft-mentioned Democratic candidate for the senate seat is Rep. Frank Pallone, who enjoyed a good relationship with Lautenberg, who was the last remaining World War II veteran in the Senate.

“Booker never got the approval of Lautenberg and that stuff was never resolved, so if you get somebody who really wants the seat, they’re going to remind people he pooed pooed on the good war hero,” the strategist said. “This is going to be a problem for Booker.”

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