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Posted at 1:20 p.m. on June 3, 2013
Updated 6:45 p.m. | The Monday morning death of Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg, D-N.J., who had already been planning to retire, shifted the race to replace him into overdrive — with an imminent appointment of an interim senator looming and the potential for a special election this November.
Yet significant confusion remained over the state’s election law statute to replace him: Either a special election would be held sometime this year, possibly in November, or in November 2014, when Lautenberg’s seat was up anyway.
Party strategists are anxiously awaiting a decision from GOP Gov. Chris Christie, whose office was considering its options within the law for whether to hold a special this year — and, if so, when — and whom to appoint as a placeholder. Immediate speculation about an appointment centered on former GOP Gov. Tom Kean, along with a handful of other potential picks.
The decisions before the governor carry significant political weight for the makeup of the Senate, for the field of Senate candidates and for Christie’s own political future.
Democrats would prefer a special election be held this year so they can take back the seat as quickly as possible. While New Jersey has proved tempting to the GOP in recent years, a Republican hasn’t been elected to the Senate from the state since 1972.
Newark Mayor Cory Booker and Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. are likely to face off in a Democratic primary no matter when the election is held. But an election in 2013, an off year, could invite more Democrats who don’t have to risk their seats.
Beyond giving Republicans an extra seat in the Senate until next year, holding the election in 2014 would also remove some complications to Christie’s re-election bid and Republicans’ hopes of picking up the four seats needed to control the state Senate.
Christie is heavily favored for re-election now, but a competitive Senate special election held on the same day could affect turnout and attract unwanted attention from outside groups.
“Any kind of upsetting of the apple cart with regard to Cory Booker or someone else being on the ballot this November with the governor would not be a good scenario for the Republicans in that regard,” a Republican consultant in the state said. “If Christie is able to legally, he would push the election off to next year.”
Christie advisers would not comment on the Senate contest. As of press time, his office had only released the governor’s remarks to a women’s conference on Monday morning, during which he eulogized the late senator. His team will no doubt brief national Republicans on the appointment and special-election process, but the decision on who and when is ultimately Christie’s to make.
Along with Kean, several GOP names immediately popped up as potential appointees. They include:
According to several Democratic sources in the state, the decision not to hold a special election this year would likely lead to legal action and eventually end up in the state Supreme Court. That’s where the decision was made in 2002 to allow for a last-minute change to the November ballot, swapping scandal-plagued Sen. Robert G. Torricelli for Lautenberg.
“I pray for the governor that he will make the right decision in his wisdom and have New Jersey first at heart,” Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr., D-N.J., said on MSNBC.
Lautenberg’s death came one day before the gubernatorial primaries. Christie canceled all campaign events on Monday and threw out his prepared remarks in the one speech he did give.
Lautenberg, 89, died following complications with viral pneumonia. He had announced his retirement in February, so the race to replace him had already begun — though mostly behind the scenes at this point. A source close to Lautenberg said that unlike Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, D-Hawaii, Lautenberg did not make a deathbed endorsement for a candidate to replace him.
Both likely Democratic candidates were careful not to mention politics in the wake of Lautenberg’s death. In a statement released through his mayoral office, Booker called Lautenberg “a true champion” and “a model of leadership and service to me since before I even considered entering elected office.”
Pallone called Lautenberg “a moral guidepost on so many critical issues” and said he will do his best “to continue working on the issues that were so important to both of us.”
Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.