Gov. Christie Debates Who Fills Lautenberg's Senate Seat

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The death of Democratic Senator Frank Lautenberg gives New Jersey Governor Chris Christie the ability to appoint a Republican to represent the state in the U.S. Senate for the first time since 1982. Political leaders in the state are scrambling to figure out the rules for electing Lautenberg's replacement.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

When Democratic Sen. Frank Lautenberg died yesterday at 89, he was the Senate's last World War II veteran and its oldest member. Though Lautenberg didn't plan to run again, his passing hands New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie a political opportunity: to appoint a Republican to represent the state in the Senate, the first in more than three decades. Still, as New Jersey Public Radio's Nancy Solomon reports, the political choice facing Christie is anything but simple.

NANCY SOLOMON, BYLINE: Gov. Chris Christie canceled all but one of his appearances yesterday and in that one, he spoke only about Frank Lautenberg. The two were political adversaries who fought bitterly about Christie's elimination of a new rail tunnel connecting New Jersey and New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF STATEMENT)

GOV. CHRIS CHRISTIE: But never was Senator Lautenberg to be underestimated as an advocate for the causes that he believed in, and as an adversary in the political world.

SOLOMON: Christie can now appoint someone to fill the seat until an election is held. It may seem obvious that the popular Republican - who is believed to be interested in running for president in 2016 - would go for a Republican. But Christie is himself up for re-election this November. And although he leads his unknown Democratic challenger by 30 points, New Jersey has 700,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans. And even though several Republicans have been elected in off-year gubernatorial races, the state hasn't sent one to the Senate since 1972.

Brigid Harrison, a political scientist at Montclair State University, says Newark Mayor Cory Booker would be a smart choice for Christie.

BRIGID HARRISON: Appointing a Democrat - and especially appointing an African-American Democrat who is mayor of one of the state's largest cities - would really ingratiate him to a constituency that may not otherwise be in his corner.

SOLOMON: Cory Booker is popular, and he's already announced his intentions to run for Lautenberg's seat. But Ruth Mandell, of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University, doesn't believe Christie would appoint a Democrat.

RUTH MANDELL: I can not imagine him doing that. He is a partisan Republican, and the Republicans will see this as an opportunity to win a seat in the Senate after 40 years of not winning an election for the Senate.

SOLOMON: But Mandell is not certain how much leeway the governor has in picking the date for the election.

MANDELL: This is a day of confusion. I've talked to people who are, in quotes, "in the know," and I've gotten different answers.

SOLOMON: New Jersey election law experts say conflicting statutes leave three different interpretations. The governor can set the election in October or November, or wait for the scheduled vote on Lautenberg's seat in November 2014. Sheila Oliver, the Democratic speaker of the New Jersey Assembly, says a Senate election - which draws more turnout - would draw larger numbers of registered Democrats. That would spell trouble for Gov. Christie's own re-election in November.

ASSEMBLYWOMAN SHEILA OLIVER: We're in the midst of a gubernatorial election. Those who are political pundits know there would be political implications for the partisan elections if we also have a Senate race going on at the same time.

SOLOMON: Appointing a Republican and waiting for November 2014 would give the GOP a better chance to hold onto the seat. But Tom Wilson, the former chairman of the state's Republican Party, says that's likely to provoke a battle.

TOM WILSON: Nobody should be surprised if this ends up being litigated.

SOLOMON: It's also unclear how the parties would choose their candidates if it were to be held this November because the primary in New Jersey is today. For NPR News, I'm Nancy Solomon.

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