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Christie decision on Senate vacancy could impact 2013 and beyond

As New Jersey stops to mourn the death of longtime Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., political speculation has turned to whom Republican Gov. Chris Christie will appoint to succeed the late senator — and for how long.

Christie’s upcoming decision could have consequences on his re-election bid this year, where he’s the overwhelming favorite, as well as on any potential run for president in 2016 or beyond.

While Christie gets to select an interim successor to replace Lautenberg in the Senate — potentially reducing the Democrats’ majority in the chamber – there appear to be two conflicting sections in New Jersey law mandating when a special election must be held.

One New Jersey provision states that if the vacancy occurs more than 70 days before a regularly scheduled statewide general election (so before Aug. 27, 2013), that vacancy would be filled on the next statewide general election, or Nov. 5, 2013, since the Garden State holds off-year elections.

Jeff Zelevansky / Getty Images file

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie speaks at a groundbreaking ceremony at Essex County Community College on May 7, 2013 in Newark, New Jersey.

But Republicans point to a different statute, which says that the election would be held on the next general election only if the vacancy occurs 70 days before the state’s primary, which is being held June 4, 2013. In this case — which Republicans clearly prefer — the special election would be held in November 2014, when Lautenberg’s seat, which he'd already announced an intent to relinquish, will be up anyway.

Whichever statute wins the day could be the difference of a Republican serving just a handful of months as New Jersey’s next senator in deep-blue New Jersey — or a Republican serving for at least a year and half through 2014.

According to the Newark Star-Ledger, the state Office of Legislative Services said in a memo that it believes any appointment Christie makes would serve until November 2014, when Lautenberg’s full six-year term expires.

Democrats say they’re closely reviewing what are “clearly conflicting laws,” but state Democrats are especially pushing for a 2013 special election, hoping turnout could boost their ticket.

Newark Mayor Cory Booker had already announced he would run for the Senate seat in 2014 — passing up the opportunity to not only challenge Christie, with whom he already enjoys a close relationship, but also announcing before Lautenberg had officially said he would retire, severely rubbing Lautenberg and many of his allies the wrong way. Democratic Rep. Frank Pallone is also heavily weighing a bid, and Rep. Rush Holt could still run as well.

If he does choose to make an appointment, Christie, a heavy favorite for re-election this fall over Democrat Barbara Buono, is still most likely to make a GOP pick. But given the Republican’s unpredictability, many in the state GOP are already privately whispering that Christie will do what’s best for his own political future.

While some rumored Monday that a Booker appointment was a possibility, though a long-shot, one longtime GOP consultant in the state said, ““It would be surprising, but it wouldn’t’ be a jaw-dropper.”

Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., passed away from viral pneumonia at the age of 89.

Either way, the choice Christie makes, and when he weighs in regarding when an election should be, could have implications for his future political plans, with the moderate Republican already on tenuous ground with the more conservative wing of his own party after his sharp embrace of President Obama in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.

According to several GOP sources, the least-damaging path for Christie seems to be to appoint a temporary placeholder that pledges not to run in the special election, much like Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick did in choosing Democrat Mo Cowan to briefly fill now-Secretary of State John Kerry’s Senate seat until the June 25 special election. But one key difference – Patrick was filling a seat his party currently holds, while Christie has the chance to flip an open seat toward his party.

Immediate Republican names that have surfaced include 2012 Senate nominee Joe Kyrillos, a state senator who’s been a longtime friend and confidante of the governor. Another possibility is state Sen. Tom Kean Jr., son of former Gov. Tom Kean Sr., who was the 2006 nominee for Senate, and another close Christie ally.

According to GOP sources, Kean, who got 44 percent in the 2006 race against Democrat Bob Menendez, won plaudits for running a difficult race in a bad year for Republicans, and is seen as a better choice in GOP circles than Kyrillos, even though he, too, ran a respectable race against Menendez in another uphill presidential year.

The state’s six GOP congressmen also seem like unlikely picks, especially if they would have to give up relatively safe House seats to take an appointment, and could trigger competitive races for their congressional seats.

Other names, though longer shots who could be temporary picks, some Republicans are mentioning include state Sen. Kevin O’Toole, a Hispanic lawmaker who’s also close with Christie; former state GOP chairman Jay Webber, now a state legislator who’s well-liked among conservatives; or even wealthy biotech executive John Crowley, who’s flirted with a statewide run before.

One name several Republicans don’t believe is likely is Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, who is running for re-election alongside Christie but is being groomed as his potential successor, especially if he runs for president in 2016.

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