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First Thoughts: What Chris Christie is thinking

What Chris Christie is thinking… Announcement for scheduling a special election for Lautenberg’s Senate seat could come as early as today… Christie’s list of names for an interim Senate pick… A Booker-vs.-Pallone primary in ’13?... Obama to begin public fight over judges at 10:30 am ET Rose Garden ceremony… House holds another IRS hearing at 10:00 am ET… Senate looks into military sexual assaults… New NBC/WSJ poll comes out first thing tomorrow morning… And Mr. Smith goes to Washington? Voters head to the polls in Missouri to replace ex-Rep. Jo Ann Emerson (R-MO).

*** What Chris Christie is thinking: A day after Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) passed away, the conversation now turns to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s (R) pick to temporarily fill the Senate seat. And it’s an upcoming move that has political implications -- both in the state and nationally, and for this year, 2014, and possibly 2016. According to Republicans familiar with the process, the first issue is how long the interim pick would serve with the scheduling of a special election. Expect Christie to announce his intention of how to proceed regarding the special election timing in the next few days, and maybe as early as today. The reason: The law appears to be murky, with conflicting statutes on the books. Had Lautenberg died a month ago, the law would have been clear about holding a special election this year. Had Lautenberg passed away next month, the law would have been clear about waiting until Nov. 2014. For now, according to these Republican sources, Christie is operating on a 2013 timeline. So that means primaries in August and a general election either in October or simultaneously with the gubernatorial race in November. The strictest reading of the law, per these Republicans, suggests October for the general -- which would keep the Senate special separated from Christie’s re-election contest. But holding an October special would also cost the state money. 

Jeff Zelevansky / 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, N.J.

*** A complicated matter: Obviously, holding a senate race at the same time as his re-election complicates Christie’s efforts to run up the score in his re-election and it could even put his re-election at real risk. But wasting money on an election just weeks before a regularly scheduled one is not exactly the most fiscally conservative thing to do. The perfect REPUBLICAN solution for Christie would be to wait unti,l 2014 but his folks believe that reading of the law would never hold up in the state courts and he’d be ordered to hold a 2013 election.

*** Christie’s list of names for an interim pick: The Republicans close to this process assume that no matter how Christie interprets the law regarding the special election, someone will sue and get courts to clarify. And that’s why Christie wants to set things in motion ASAP -- to speed up the legal process for anyone wanting to challenge his reading of the law. As for candidates the governor might appoint to temporarily fill the Senate seat before the special election, Christie’s first choice is former Gov. Tom Kean Sr. (R); in fact, we understand the two men will meet soon about it.  Kean Sr. is in a tier all by himself. The next tier of potential appointees includes Kean’s son, Tom Kean Jr. (whom Bob Menendez beat in ’06, 53%-44%) Joe Kyrillos (whom Menendez thumped in ’12), and the state’s current lieutenant governor, Kim Guadagno. Christie potentially picking Rep. Frank LoBiondo (R-NJ) is possible -- if he would be willing to give up his safe congressional seat, which is unlikely. And LoBiondo is thought of as the only serious GOP member of Congress on short list. One other thing: Christie would prefer this interim pick run in the special election, so Kean Sr. agreeing to hold the seat but pass on a run IS NOT Christie’s preference.

*** A Booker-vs.-Pallone primary in ’13? What's interesting about the likely quick special election is that it doesn't preclude the 2014 race -- that is, you’ll have a special Senate election this year and then another race for the seat in 2014. But this also means that Newark Mayor Cory Booker, who’s widely assumed to jump into this special election, would probably face a primary fight now from Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ).Why? Well, Pallone can run for the Senate seat in 2013 without risking his House seat. So it’s a free shot for the Democratic congressman. Of course, the state party could decide against holding a party primary and choose the nominee at a convention of sorts. There will be national pressure on New Jersey Democrats to rally around Booker, whether Pallone likes that or not

*** Obama begins public fight over judges: At 10:30 am from the White House Rose Garden today, President Obama will do something we don’t remember seeing him do before -- announcing judicial picks to the public (other than ones to the Supreme Court). Per the Washington Post, the president will nominate “two female lawyers and an African American federal judge Tuesday to serve on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.” They are “veteran appellate lawyer Patricia A. Millett; Georgetown University Law Center professor Cornelia ­T. L. Pillard; and Robert L. Wilkins, a judge on the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, according to a White House official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the announcement had not been made.” Obama has been criticized by many Democrats publicly and privately for not making a bigger public push for his judicial nominations. Yet by nominating three appellate picks at once -- after Republicans filibustered a previous nominee, Caitlin Halligan -- Obama “will effectively be daring Republicans to find specific ground to filibuster all the nominees,” as the New York Times wrote last week. One additional thing to keep in mind: If Obama is to wage a battle over judges, it has to come in the next 18 months. Why? After 2014, it’s likely there will be fewer Senate Democrats and maybe even a GOP-controlled Senate.

*** House holds another IRS hearing: Another day, another congressional hearing looking into the controversies surrounding the Internal Revenue Service. At 10:00 am ET, the House Ways and Means Committee holds a hearing featuring groups who were targeted in their application for tax-exempt status because of their conservative-sounding names. The groups include the Laurens County Tea Party, Wetumpka Tea Party, San Fernando Valley Patriots, and Linchpins of Liberty. This comes one day after the new acting IRS Commissioner, Danny Werfel, testified on the Hill, vowing “to work quickly and with the cooperation of Congress to implement reforms to the tax agency,” NBC’s Mike O’Brien reported yesterday. 

*** Senate looks into military sexual assaults: Also on Capitol Hill today, the Senate Armed Services Committee holds a hearing at 9:30 am ET to discuss pending legislation on sexual assaults in the military. As NBC’s Jim Miklaszewski noted on “TODAY” this morning, the hearing comes after Defense officials confirmed three Naval Academy football players who are under investigation for allegedly assaulting an unconscious female midshipman at a party last year. The victim's attorney claims that when her client reported the incident, she was disciplined for drinking but the three football players went unpunished and were permitted to play out the season.

*** NBC/WSJ poll coming out! How does the public view American institutions like the military and IRS after these recent stories? They have damaged President Obama’s political standing? We’ll be releasing a brand-new NBC/WSJ poll on these subjects and more first thing tomorrow morning.

*** Mr. Smith goes to Washington? Lastly today, Missouri voters go to the polls to fill the congressional seat vacated by former Rep. Jo Ann Emerson (R-MO). Jessica Taylor writes: “Republican state Rep. Jason Smith is the overwhelming favorite to succeed former Rep. Jo Ann Emerson in a little-noticed special election in the expansive southeastern rural Missouri district. Emerson resigned earlier this year to take a job as CEO of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association. Smith faces fellow Democratic state Rep. Steve Hodges on the ballot, along with two other minor party candidates. But the overwhelming GOP tilt of the conservative district (Mitt Romney wont the district by 34 points) makes him essentially a lock for Tuesday’s special election.”

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