Picking Frank Lautenberg’s Successor

Some interesting choices ahead for New Jersey Governor Chris Christie


Inevitably, the death of Senator Frank Lautenberg has led to speculation about his potential successor, and what it might mean for the makeup of the Senate over the coming months in years. In that regard, in the first reports about Lautenberg’s passing, there seemed to be some disagreement about how the issue of Lautenberg’s succession will be handled:

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) will appoint a replacement for Lautenberg, meaning Senate Democrats lose a reliable vote as they take on tough issues like immigration reform this summer.

However, there is some question over whether Christie’s appointment would face a special election in November – as Democrats claim – or would serve out the remainder of Lautenberg’s term. Democrats will file a legal challenge on this issue in New Jersey.

Looking at the statute that appears to control the issue, though, there doesn’t seem to be much ambiguity:

If a vacancy shall happen in the representation of this State in the United States senate, it shall be filled at the general election next succeeding the happening thereof, unless such vacancy shall happen within 70 days next preceding such election, in which case it shall be filled by election at the second succeeding general election, unless the governor of this State shall deem it advisable to call a special election therefor, which he is authorized hereby to do.

The governor of this State may make a temporary appointment of a senator of the United States from this State whenever a vacancy shall occur by reason of any cause other than the expiration of the term; and such appointee shall serve as such senator until a special election or general election shall have been held pursuant to law and the Board of State Canvassers can deliver to his successor a certificate of election.

Assuming that the November 2013 election qualifies as the type of “general election” the statute is speaking of, and I see no reason why it wouldn’t that means that there would have to be an election to fill out the remainder of Lautenberg’s term this November, and there would then be another election in November 2014 to fill the seat for a new term. Of course, the statute does give Christie the option of calling a Special Election for the seat, either before or after the General Election in November. One reason he might choose to do this, of course, is to alleviate any potential problems that might be faced by having both the Gubernatorial, and Assembly, election on the same day as an election for the United States Senate. Realistically, it would seem likely that he’d schedule a Special Election for after the General Election given the fact that it is going to take time for candidates and campaigns to coalesce, money to be raised, and nominees to be chosen. Normally, New Jersey holds its primaries in June, and the primary for the 2014 election would be held in June of next year. At this point, it would likely be August at the earliest before the candidates and the parties are ready or primaries, and that would make for a very short General Election season if they held the Special Election in November.

Barring that decision, though, this raises the interesting prospect of both Chris Christie and Cory Booker being on a general election ballot, albeit for different seats. A November 2013 Special Election would also mean that any candidates on either side of the aisle would have to hit the ground running very soon, especially when it comes to raising money. New Jersey sits in the middle of two of the most expensive media markets in the country, and any candidate is going to need a lot of money to mount a credible campaign. This is a development that arguably helps Newark Mayor Cory Booker given his contacts with the Wall Street and financial services communities. It may also serve to cause some prospective candidates to sit the election out given that they are going to be required to mount two campaigns inside of two years. So far, only two candidates, Booker and Democratic Congressman Frank Pallone, have expressed interested in running for the seat, and that was for what everyone knew would be an open seat election in 2014. Now, the ground has changed significantly. New Jersey was set to be a pretty boring state in 2013 given Governor Christie’s massive lead in the polls, but that may no longer be the case.

As for who Christie might appoint to fill out Lautenberg’s term until the Special Election, a few names come to mind. If he’s looking for a placeholder candidate, someone who will serve in the Senate but not run for the seat, then possible names include former Governor Tom Kean and Pete Dawkins, a West Point Graduate, Vietnam War hero, and business executive, who mounted an unsuccessful campaign against Lautenberg in 1988. If he’s looking to appoint someone who would be a candidate in the Special Election, then he could look to State Senator Tom Kean Jr or Kim Guadagno, who currently serves as Lt Governor of New Jersey. Other possibilities include Bret Schundler, who also ran against Lautenberg and lost, or Joseph M. Kyrillos, who most recently ran against Senator Bob Menendez in 2012 only to lose by a double digit margin.  This will be an interesting test for Christie, especially given his pick is likely to have an impact on the 2013 General Election campaign on all levels.

In any case, I wouldn’t expect any decision from Christie on this for a couple weeks.

Update: Upon further examination, there appears to be a massive conflict in New Jersey law regarding the timing of Special Elections in the event of a Senate vacancy.

FILED UNDER: 2013 Election, Congress, US Politics, , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. fred says:

    Sen Reid will now have no option but to change the filibuster rules as Gov Christie will send a GOPer to the senate. In order to move our country forward and get Pres Obama’s agenda for the country moving Sen Reid has no choice.

  2. CSK says:

    I’m not sure that Schundler is a possibility. Christie had appointed Schundler Commissioner of Education, but fired him when Schundler made a mistake on a federal grant application that caused NJ to lose out on a considerable chunk of money. Although I realize that in politics animosities last about as long as friendships, there might still be some bad blood between them.

  3. Caj says:

    We don’t need anymore Republicans in the Senate. We have enough of the lazy crazy articles in the House. Harry Reid should do what he had chance to do earlier and change the filibuster rules.

  4. Jenos Idanian says:

    Look, the actual laws on the books didn’t matter when Lautenberg went back into the Senate in 2003. Why should they matter now? Let Christie appoint his choice to serve until the end of Lautenberg’s term, through 2014, and the Democrats can go pound sand.

  5. michael reynolds says:

    Are we absolutely sure we shouldn’t just let Lautenberg continue to hold the seat? In terms of actual productivity, can we be sure that a dead senator is any worse than a live senator?

  6. This seems like a tough spot for Christie. No matter who he chooses to fill the seat, it’s going to hurt him in the general election for his own position. If he chooses someone the Republican base likes, it will make him less popular with the general voters. If he chooses someone the general public likes, the base will take it as more proof he’s a secret Democrat.

    If I were him, I’d schedule the special election as early as possible so that he doesn’t have to choose a replacement and can’t be blamed for the outcome.

  7. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @michael reynolds:

    In terms of actual productivity, can we be sure that a dead senator is any worse than a live senator?

    They won’t let it happen Michael. Back in 2000 we, the people of Missouri, voted to send a dead man to the Senate. They decided to send his wife in his stead. I’m pretty sure Mel would have been better.

  8. Tano says:

    It is usually considered rather bad form to appoint someone to a seat that he has run for in the past, and lost.

  9. Dave Schuler says:

    If he’ll take the job, Kean’s probably the best choice. I mean Kean, Sr. He’s a Republican, well-known in the state, and probably won’t seek a full term leaving a space for whoever does run (most likely his son again) to get a head of steam. Alternatively, he could appoint Kean, Jr. and hope that incumbency will give him a leg up although, as Tano notes, people who’ve previously run and lost are rarely appointed.

  10. PJ says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    If I were him, I’d schedule the special election as early as possible so that he doesn’t have to choose a replacement and can’t be blamed for the outcome.

    While I agree that it would be the best choice for himself, that would only end in Republicans calling him a secret Democrat because he chose to give away a free GOP seat.