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Lautenberg Dies, Christie on the Spot

New Jersey politics are never simple, and the death of Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) yesterday will bring out the worst in it. To start with, Lautenberg had an unusual history in the Senate. He had a long career in the data processing business and was extremely wealthy when he first ran for the Senate in 1982. He was reelected in 1988, and 1994, retiring in January of 2001. In 2003, incumbent Democratic senator Robert Torricelli was caught up in a corruption scandal while running for reelection. When the Democratic Party managed to force Torricelli out of the race just weeks before the general election, they needed a new candidate with universal name recognition in the state and begged Lautenberg to unretire. Lautenberg accepted, in no small part because he and Torricelli didn't especially like each other and taking Torricelli's seat would be the cherry on the sundae. Torricelli once said to Lautenberg: "You're a fucking piece of shit and I'm going to cut your balls off." Normally, this sort of language is reserved for talking to members of the other party, not senators from your own party and state. To make a long story short, Lautenberg won, and not having to worry too much about his future, became an unabashed liberal until his death yesterday.

Now it gets hairy. New Jersey election law is very complicated, with multiple, conflicting statutes about how Senate vacancies are to be filled. To make the situation even murkier Gov. Chris Christie (R-NJ) can't just pick the best man or woman to represent New Jersey, he has to think about three elections while doing so. First, there is his own reelection against state senator Barbara Buono (D) in Nov. 2013, then there is the Republican presidential primary in the Spring of 2016, and finally there is the general election for President in Nov. 2016. The choices he is now forced to make now will impact all of these and there is no easy way to dodge the bullet. It is almost as if Lautenberg died on purpose to confound Christie, although he was 89 and sometimes people at that age die without a political motivation.

First problem is what next. Christie is authorized by state law to appoint an interim senator (but he is not required to do so). Then he could (but doesn't have to) call a special election this Fall to replace his interim choice. Or he could wait until the Nov. 2013 regularly scheduled gubernatorial election and hold a special Senate election on the same day. Or not. He could also just forget the special election altogether and let the interim senator serve the rest of Lautenberg's term, which expires in January 2015. Lautenberg had already announced he wasn't running for reelection, so the 2014 race is already underway. Each of these options has different political consequences for the parties and for himself. Depending what he decides, somebody will probably sue and the case will certainly go to the New Jersey Supreme Court maybe the U.S. Supreme Court.

Having dealt with "when," now let's look at the trickier matter of "who." Christie has four broad categories of people to choose from: a Democrat, a placeholder, a moderate Republican, or a tea party Republican. Each one has its own pluses and minuses. If Christie decides to name a Democrat, the obvious choice is Newark mayor Cory Booker, an ambitious black politician who is already running for the Senate seat. At one point, Booker had considered challenging Christie for the governor's mansion, but later decided to go for the Senate, even before Lautenberg had announced his retirement. This decision spared Christie a difficult race himself, so he kind of owes Booker one, and in New Jersey, when you owe someone something, you better pay up. This choice would make the seat Democratic for the next 40 years (Booker is 44), but would cement Christie's reputation as being bipartisan and make his own reelection a cakewalk and make life much easier in the 2016 presidential general election--should he get that far. The downside is that it will make the Republican base boiling mad at him and make it very hard to get the Republican nomination, even if the Democratic nominee is Hillary Clinton and polls show he is the only Republican with a chance to beat her. Although politicians normally think first of the next election, he probably won't pick a Democrat because that will hurt his chances of getting the GOP nomination in 2016.

Another option is to pick a clear placeholder--someone with no ambition to keep the seat. The obvious choice here is former New Jersey governor Tom Kean (78), a Republican who served from 1982 to 1990. Kean is highly respected by both parties and would no doubt be an excellent senator, thus showing the voters that Christie puts quality above partisan politics. Another option is Kean's son, but at 44 and a state senator, he is less likely to accept the role of placeholder.

A moderate Republican would make the Wall Street wing of his party happy, but would lead to grousing among the tea party adherents. This could be a viable plan because in 2016, his strategy in the primaries could be a repeat of Mitt Romney's: let the right wingers tear themselves to bits and then emerge as the last man standing. With a bitter fight among some subset of Paul Ryan, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Rick Santorum, Scott Walker, Bobby Jindal, and probably more, Christie could get 20% of the vote in the many winner-take-all states and emerge with the nomination. This might be his best bet. If he goes this route, state senator Joseph Kyrillos, a buddy of his who ran for the Senate in 2012 and lost to Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) would be the obvious choice. However, the state also has six Republican representatives to choose from.

A more radical plan would be to pick a tea party favorite and not hold a special election at all. Let that man or woman serve until the 2014 general election, giving him or her a huge head start. This would be a message to the tea party in effect saying: "Yeah, I cosied up to Obama last Fall because I wanted federal money to rebuild New Jersey after Hurricane Sandy, but I am really one of you at heart." It might or might not work, but it would make it a lot harder for his 2016 primary opponents to paint him as a cryptoDemocrat, especially if the new senator joined forces with Ted Cruz and began rocking the boat in the Senate.

Nobody knows what will happen next, but it is moments like this that make politics so exciting.

Update 1: Gov. Christie has moved quickly and scheduled a special election on Oct 16. If he had decided to move it 3 weeks to the same date as the already-scheduled gubernatorial election on Nov. 5, he would have saved the state the $20 million it costs to run an election. By having a separate election, Christie avoids having lots of Democrats who want to vote for Cory Booker showing up on the day when he is on the ballot.

Update 2: Christie has appoint Republican Attorney General Jeff Chiesa to the vacant Senate seat. He will serve until a new senator is chosen in a special election. That senator will serve until January 2015, unless he wins the general election in Nov. 2014.

Rep. Carolyn McCarthy Has Lung Cancer

Long-time representative Carolyn McCarthy (D-NY) has been diagnosed with lung cancer. While the overall survival rate depends on many factors, on the whole, 85% of people diagnosed with the disease die within 5 years. While McCarthy stated that her form of cancer is treatable, politicians rarely state that they have a fatal disease and will surely be dead within a few years, so such statements should be taken with a grain of salt.

Should McCarthy's seat, which is in a heavily Democratic area of Long Island, become vacant, there will no doubt be intense speculation about whether Chelsea Clinton will run for it. Clinton lives in New York City and is married to financier Marc Mezvinsky, both of whose parents served in the House and whose mother, Marjorie Margolies, is running for her old seat in Pennsylvania in 2014. Both of Clinton's parents have also held elected office. At 33, Clinton would be young to run for Congress, but with her parents' networks and her husband's networks, she could raise boatloads of money the day she announced.

If she were to run for Congress, she might put off a decision to have children for a while. This, in turn, could affect Hillary Clinton's decision to run for President in 2016. If Chelsea had a baby, Hillary might decide she has had enough of politics and prefers being a grandma. Stranger things have happened in politics.

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