Special Election Called In New Jersey To Fill Vacant Senate Seat

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is calling a special election to fill the seat of U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg, who died Monday. The decision means the state will have two statewide elections three weeks apart. NPR's Joel Rose reports.

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Funeral services for New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg will be held tomorrow in Manhattan, but the political maneuvering to replace the long-serving Democrat is already underway. Senator Lautenberg died yesterday. And today, New Jersey's Republican governor, Chris Christie, ordered a special election to fill the seat this fall. As NPR's Joel Rose reports, that is not what many in Christie's party wanted.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Christie's fellow Republicans might have preferred that he appoint one of them to serve until the next Senate election, which is scheduled for 2014. But Christie had other ideas.

GOVERNOR CHRIS CHRISTIE: I just thought it was too long a period of time for any person to have the sole authority to pick who represents us in the United States Senate. The right thing is to let the people decide, and let them decide as quickly as possible.

ROSE: Christie is calling for a special election to fill the seat this October with the party primaries a few months earlier in August. Republican leaders in the Senate did not have much to say about today's decision, but democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid did.

SENATOR HARRY REID: I'm happy with what he's done. I think people who serve in the Senate, when the election laws in the state call for it, should be determined by an election.

ROSE: New Jersey law does call for a special election to fill a vacant Senate seat, but there are conflicting interpretations of exactly when that election has to take place.

If Christie had tried to put it off until next year, Monmouth University pollster Patrick Murray says, that could have opened the door to legal challenges. And Murray says a court might have ordered Christie to hold the election in November of this year, when the governor himself will be on the ballot for re-election.

PATRICK MURRAY: The reason why Chris Christie doesn't want to see that is not that this is going to cost him the election but that he really wants to win by 20 or 25 points because that's going to be his calling card when he runs for president in 2106.

ROSE: This would not be the first time Christie has disappointed his fellow Republicans. His public embrace of President Obama after Hurricane Sandy angered the conservative wing of the party.

Democrats in New Jersey may not be happy either. Christie's plan sets up a special election just three weeks before regular state elections in November. But when asked about the potential cost today, Christie didn't blink.

CHRISTIE: I don't know what the cost is, and I quite frankly don't care. I don't think you can put a price tag on what it's worth to have an elected person in the United States Senate.

ROSE: Christie did not say who he'll appoint to fill Senator Lautenberg seat until October, but he promised that decision soon. Joel Rose, NPR News, New York.

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