Chris Christie Faces Tough Political Choices In Replacing Sen. Frank Lautenberg

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Chris Christie
N.J. Gov. Chris Christie came out against gay conversion therapy in March.

When it comes to replacing Sen. Frank Lautenberg, New Jersey’s senior Democratic senator who passed away early Monday, nothing is certain except that the stakes are high for Republican Gov. Chris Christie, who is up for re-election this November.

Ambiguities in New Jersey's election law left Christie’s office scrambling Monday to assess its political options in replacing Lautenberg. The most important question for Christie: whether or not popular Newark Mayor Cory Booker could end up on the November ballot in a special Senate election, potentially harming the governor’s own re-election chances.

What is known is that Christie can appoint a temporary replacement for Lautenberg. Christie also has the option to call for a special election. What is unclear is when a special election would take place if Christie doesn’t arrange one: Due to two conflicting provisions of the same statute, one section of state law says the election would be this November while a second section says it would be in November 2014. For political reasons, Democrats want any special election to coincide with the November gubernatorial election while Republicans would push it back to the following year. As the two parties likely begin to fight over which of New Jersey’s election statutes to follow, it’s not unlikely the issue could land in court.

“That’s why the governor canceled -- he had a press conference at 3:30 p.m. today -- he canceled it, my assumption would be, because he’s got to figure out what he’s going to say,” a Democrat strategist in New Jersey, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the uncertainty of the situation, said on Monday. “I think right now that’s what’s being decided is, 'OK, as governor, what are my options? And am I able to actually to appoint somebody for 14 months?’”

Democrats are already arguing that the election should be held this November. “The governor gets to appoint [to fill the vacancy], that’s clear,” New Jersey Democratic Party Chairman John Wisniewski told Politico. “And what we expect as Democrats is that he will hold a special election this November. …  that is the most recent pronouncement by the state Legislature on the issue, and that is the law that should be followed.” 

“I’ve reread these provisions a half a dozen times and they just make no sense to me,” Frank Askin, a professor at Rutgers School of Law who specializes in election law, said Monday. The only way to avoid a “clearly irreconcilable situation” is for Christie to set a special election date himself, he explained.

If the governor wants to appoint someone who will serve until 2014, Askin believes the Democrats will challenge that decision court. Hazarding a guess, Askin believes a court is likely to side with Democrats and set the election for this November because it is “more democratic” to hold the election sooner.

Of course, this possibility must also factor into Christie’s decision, because a showdown with Democrats in a Democratic state during an election year is not a desirable outcome. Setting a special election for sometime this year but before the November election would make sure he and Booker, who has already raised nearly $2 million for a 2014 bid Senate run and is expected to jump into the Senate special election if one is called, would not be on the same ballot.

When it comes to a replacement, one name already circulating is former New Jersey Gov. Tom Kean. A Republican who chaired the 9/11 commission, which investigated the causes of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Kean would likely only be interested in the seat on a temporary basis. Another strong option is Kean’s son, Tom Kean, Jr., a Republican state senator. A third option is state Sen. Joe Kyrillos, a longtime friend to Christie. If the special election ends up happening this November, “the strongest ticket they could put together would be a Kean-Christie ticket,” the Democratic source said.

But Christie’s decision on whom to appoint is fraught due to the ramifications both for his re-election campaign and a potential presidential run in 2016, for which he is considered a top contender. If he chooses a conservative Republican, he could make the appointment an election issue this year. If he goes with a more moderate choice, it could haunt him during a potential Republican presidential primary.

“As of right now, I think everybody’s sort of scrambling and jockeying for positions,” the source said.

On the Democratic side, the whole situation is a likely boost to Christie’s challenger, state Sen. Barbara Buono, who has been trailing the popular governor by a wide margin in recent polls. “Anything that shakes up election for Buono is a positive,” the source said.

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