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Christie Faces Big Decision After Lautenberg’s Death

New Jersey GOP Gov. Chris Christie. Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images.

The Morning Line

Sen. Frank Lautenberg’s death Monday sets up a series of big decisions for New Jersey Republican Gov. Chris Christie and potentially far reaching political consequences.

Lautenberg had been tending to his health back home, returning to Washington for just a handful of votes this year. The Democrat announced in February he would not seek re-election in 2014. That decision left Newark Mayor Cory Booker and Rep. Frank Pallone to battle it out in a Democratic primary next year in hopes of sailing to a general election win.

But given that New Jersey has long been a state that Republicans believe is within their sights for federal elections, and the fact Christie could have national ambitions and is up for re-election this fall, for Garden State voters, the picture is anything but clear.

Christie has the power to appoint a replacement, but he could instead opt to call a special election, Politico reports. The story notes Christie’s political “mentor” Tom Kean Sr. could be on the short list.

Insiders expect Christie to name a successor as early as Friday and believe there’s no doubt he would choose a Republican. That would mean the GOP would hold 46 seats, while 54 lawmakers would caucus with the Senate Democrats.

Will that person aim to run for a full term or serve instead as a placeholder? Will the candidates who thought they had more than a year to prepare be forced to scramble and run a 2013 Senate campaign? Jennifer Duffy of the Cook Political Report explains the state’s laws governing special elections and why voters could see two elections in a row.

Incidentally, it’s primary day in New Jersey, but neither Christie nor Democrat Barbara Buono face much opposition and are expected to easily capture their respective party nods in primaries. Christie is so far ahead there’s little risk to his appointing a Republican in this blue state.

The New York Times details Christie’s challenge:

Mr. Christie, whose popularity soared after Hurricane Sandy, is so eager to avoid appearing on the same ballot as Mr. Booker, according to Republican insiders, that he is considering two alternatives to a November election for Mr. Lautenberg’s successor.

Each carries a potential political cost, and the dispute could easily be challenged in court. The option that is being pushed by many in Mr. Christie’s own party would be to name a Republican to hold the seat and then delay an election on a replacement until 2014. This would give his national party an unexpected gift: a reliable vote in the Senate — for a year and a half, at least — from a state that has not elected a Republican to the upper house in 41 years. But it would also open Mr. Christie up to allegations of sidestepping the electoral process. The alternative, lawyers in both parties said, would be for Mr. Christie to set a primary election as early as August, which would mean a special election in October.

This would leave Democrats in a stronger position to win the seat. Mr. Booker, in particular, benefits from a high national profile and strong fund-raising, though he would be quite likely to face a primary challenge. But it would also open Mr. Christie to accusations that he was wasting some $24 million in taxpayer money by holding those two extra elections ahead of the regular November balloting for self-interested political reasons. He also risks alienating Republican donors, whom he needs to woo. Mr. Lautenberg’s death came a few days before Mr. Christie is to attend a meeting of some of the biggest Republican fund-raisers, some of whom believe that Mr. Christie’s embrace of President Obama after the hurricane damaged their party’s nominee, Mitt Romney.

The story sets up the political trash-talk Christie should expect until he makes his decision:

Some Democrats said they believed Mr. Christie could see his support among Democrats and independents erode if he appointed a Republican to hold the seat beyond November. “I seriously doubt he would want to have to deal with a lawsuit in his own election year, especially a lawsuit that he might lose,” said one senior Democratic official who requested anonymity in order to not be seen as antagonizing the governor.

Matt Katz of the Philadelphia Inquirer details Christie’s options, including a long list of potential replacements.

In respective statements Monday, the two men who hope to be the next Democratic senator in New Jersey heaped praise on Lautenberg, the last World War II veteran in the Senate.

Pallone called Lautenberg a “moral guidepost on so many critical issues,” and said his life “defined public service and what it means to live the American dream.”

Booker dubbed the late senator a “true champion” who became “a model of leadership and service to me since before I even considered entering elected office.”

Monday night Gwen Ifill interviewed Herb Jackson of The Record in Bergen County, N.J., about Lautenberg’s legacy and Christie’s options. Here is the obituary the longtime political reporter penned about the 89-year-old.

Watch their conversation here or below:

Our partners at NJTV hosted a special tribute to the late senator Monday night. We also posted from-the-archives video of Lautenberg talking about his signature issues.

And don’t miss Steve Kornacki’s rich tale of Lautenberg’s life for Salon.


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Simone Pathe contributed to this report.

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