Sen. Frank Lautenberg’s (D-NJ) death yesterday illuminated another ambiguity in the New Jersey Election Code. At stake is whether Gov. Chris Christie (R) is forced to schedule a replacement special election this year, or whether his interim appointee can carry serve the remainder of Lautenberg’s current term.
The last time the state had a Senate vacancy occur outside a regular election period was in 2002, when Sen. Bob Torricelli (D) ended his post-nomination re-election bid due to campaign finance irregularities. Six weeks away from the ’02 general election, Torricelli was under heavy media pressure. Several incidents of potential illegality were coming to the forefront, and polls were showing him dropping behind GOP challenger Doug Forrester. With party leaders clearly understanding that the seat slipping through their fingers, Torricelli was forced out. Even though the Garden State election law seemed clear that the time for changing nominees had long since passed, the New Jersey Supreme Court allowed the Democrats to replace Torricelli. The man they had waiting in the wings to do so was none other than former senator Lautenberg, who had retired just two years earlier.
This time, it appears at least two NJ election statutes conflict. The Democrats are claiming that Christie may appoint a successor of his choice, but the seat must come before the voters to fill the term’s unexpired portion in the 2013 general election. Others, largely in the Republican camp, believe the law allows Christie’s eventual appointee to serve the entire remaining 19 months. The seat is currently in-cycle, meaning voters will choose someone to serve a new six-year term in November of next year even if a special election is mandated for 2013.
Undoubtedly, this issue will go to court, and the adjudication process will likely take several weeks. In the meantime, Gov. Christie will choose a replacement.
The three most mentioned possibilities are state senator and 2012 US Senatorial nominee Joe Kyrillos, Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno and state Sen. Tom Kean Jr.
On the Democratic side, Newark Mayor Cory Booker has been a formal 2014 senatorial candidate for weeks. Representatives Frank Pallone (D-NJ-6) and Rush Holt (D-NJ-12) are possible candidates.
Sen. Lautenberg passed away yesterday morning of viral pneumonia at the age of 89. He had previously announced that he would not seek re-election in 2014. He was elected to five non-consecutive six-year terms beginning in 1982. He becomes the 11th Senator since the 2012 election to end his legislative service either through death, resignation, or announcing his retirement.