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Lautenberg's Death Muddles N.J. Picture for 2014

Lautenberg's Death Muddles N.J. Picture for 2014

By Sean Trende - June 3, 2013

Five-term Democratic Sen. Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey passed away Monday from viral pneumonia. Lautenberg, the last World War II veteran in the Senate, had retired from the upper chamber in 2000, only to be drafted at the last minute in 2002 to replace Sen. Bob Torricelli, who resigned under the weight of scandal. Lautenberg was a reliable liberal vote, colorful personality, and an American rags-to-riches story, whose $90,000 contribution to George McGovern earned him a place on Richard Nixon’s “enemies list.” He once remarked of the gap between his front teeth, “If my parents had money I wouldn't have this. I keep it as a badge of my roots.”

Lautenberg had already announced that he would retire at the end of his term in 2014. No Republican had emerged to replace him, and Newark Mayor Corey Booker has widely been considered the front-runner both for the Democratic nomination and the seat. That calculus has now been scrambled a bit.

New Jersey law provides that the governor -- currently Republican Chris Christie -- will appoint an interim replacement, which will bring the total number of Republicans in the Senate to 46. That new senator will serve until “until a special election or general election shall have been held pursuant to law.”

An earlier section of the code defines "general election" as “the annual election to be held on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November and, where applicable, includes annual school elections held on that date.”

This suggests that the appointee will only serve until the 2013 general election, when Christie will be atop the ballot. Whoever wins that election will have to stand again in 2014 to win a full term.

This obviously helps Republicans somewhat, as whoever stands in the 2013 election will have the benefit of incumbency for fundraising, raising his or her profile, and so forth. New Jersey is reliably Democratic today at the presidential level, but Republicans can still win at the state level (having held the governor’s mansion for 18 of the last 30 years). While the party hasn’t won a Senate race in the state since 1972, it has often managed to make races competitive.

The vacancy also creates a sprint for the Democratic nomination to square off against the appointee. Well-funded challengers like Reps. Frank Pallone and Robert Andrews might conclude that they could defeat Booker in a snap primary, as opposed to the slog that would be involved in winning a full-blown contest.

But most of all, this complicates things for Christie. He still probably harbors some presidential ambitions, although he has tacked leftward of late to secure his re-election this fall (perhaps learning from the example of former Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes, who was thought to be a strong Democratic candidate in 2004, but who lost his re-election bid in 2002).

So he has a bit of a dilemma here. Legislative leaders have to stand for re-election this year, so appointing one of them could create a vacancy in a pair of bodies where Republicans are already outnumbered.

There is also an ideological dilemma. He could appoint a conservative, but having to run with him or her on the ticket could hurt Christie in the general election. He could appoint a moderate, such as former Gov. Christie Todd Whitman (who almost defeated Bill Bradley in 1990) or Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, but that would not play well in Iowa, to say the least.

On top of all this, there’s a reasonable chance that whomever he appoints will lose in 2013 or 2014, which could make him look weak and complicate his presidential bid. And if he appoints a moderate, there is always the possibility of a Tea Party challenge; New Jersey was the site of two of the earliest such challenges to establishment Republicans. Gov. William Cahill lost in 1973 to conservative Congressman Charles Sandman (who lost by over 30 points in the fall); Sen. Clifford Case lost in 1978 to activist Jeffrey Bell (who lost by 12 points in the fall).

Oddly enough, there aren’t any clear winners here. Christie likely comes out of this a loser however it plays out. Corey Booker and other Democratic candidates just had their path to the Senate complicated. And whoever gets appointed to the seat will have to face an unfriendly electorate twice in the next 18 months. 

Sean Trende is senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He is a co-author of the 2014 Almanac of American Politics and author of The Lost Majority. He can be reached at strende@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

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