Corzine to Appoint Replacement for N.J. Senate Seat

Jon Corzine's election as governor of New Jersey means that he will have to give up his Senate seat. But when he takes office next month, one of his first tasks will be to appoint his own replacement in the Senate.

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The race for Senate in New Jersey is heating up, and if that line has you scratching your head or reaching for your calendar, don't worry. This is not a regular campaign for Senate. The candidates only have to win one vote. They're jockeying for the Senate seat being vacated by Jon Corzine. He's been elected governor of the Garden State, and he gets to pick his replacement. Nancy Solomon reports.

NANCY SOLOMON reporting:

The race to fill Democrat Jon Corzine's Senate seat is less like a campaign and more like dating.

Representative ROBERT MENENDEZ (Democrat, New Jersey): Well, you know, you've got to give the governor-elect his space. That's the bottom line.

SOLOMON: That's the considered front-runner, Congressman Robert Menendez. He's got plenty of experience, co-chaired Corzine's successful run for governor and shares his progressive politics. Menendez is the highest-ranking Hispanic in the history of Congress and has already shown he can raise money for a statewide race. But this is no ordinary campaign.

Rep. MENENDEZ: There is a fine line between making sure that you sort of like put your best foot forward and that he's aware of the assets that you bring. But, you know, above all I think the one thing you could do is just be so overbearing in this process that you could just turn the process into a negative vs. a positive.

SOLOMON: Menendez appears to understand the rules of dating: Show you're attractive, available but not too needy. Of course, not all suitors can follow that method, especially if they fear they're not the most attractive guy at the dance.

Representative FRANK PALLONE (Democrat, New Jersey): Ever since last December I, you know, first of all, talked to him and also worked on his campaign and made sure he was elected governor.

SOLOMON: Frank Pallone is a congressman from a swing district who has raised $2 million, is a progressive and has shown he can get the votes of Republicans. When it comes to his dating strategy, Pallone is taking a much more assertive approach.

Rep. PALLONE: And then secondly, go around and talk to Democratic leaders, county chairs, mayors, elected officials. And then third, a public campaign that basically involved doing press events and we have a Web site, which is basically a campaign organization which tries to get volunteers, has meet-ups and tries to get grassroots support.

SOLOMON: At the other end of the style spectrum is Congressman Rush Holt from the Princeton area. He prefers to be courted. Instead of making the first move, his staff says he'd rather just work hard and let his record speak for itself.

Also on the list is Congressman Rob Andrews, Donald Payne and Bill Pascrell. Corzine is meeting with all six House members as well as State Senator Nia Gill. Gill has emerged as the most intriguing suitor of the bunch. She's African-American, progressive and new to electoral politics. Rutgers University political scientist Ross Baker says choosing Gill would indicate whether or not Corzine is seriously thinking about the White House.

Mr. ROSS BAKER (Rutgers University Political Scientist): The African-American vote is enormously important to Democratic politicians not just in New Jersey but nationally. And I think that to be known as someone who is promoting the candidacies of successful, attractive, high-quality African-American candidates is certainly an asset for someone who aspires to a Democratic nomination in the future.

SOLOMON: If chosen, Gill would become only the second black woman ever to serve in the US Senate, but then Menendez would be only the second Cuban-American for that matter. Corzine, as much as anyone, understands that dating can lead to marriage. His pick will be judged a success or failure largely on whether the appointed senator is elected next November, keeping the seat in Democratic hands. Only two other governors have replaced themselves in the Senate in more than 50 years. One of those, Pete Wilson of California, understands the pitfalls of this process. His choice was defeated a year later by Dianne Feinstein.

Former Governor PETE WILSON (California): It is an opportunity to probably make 60 enemies and one ingrate. (Laughs)

SOLOMON: For this to be a match made in heaven, Corzine has to jilt all but one of his suitors and leave them feeling the process was fair. Otherwise, New Jersey campaign strategists say, the party will face a nasty primary next spring that could leave it vulnerable to a Republican victory in November. For NPR News, I'm Nancy Solomon.

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