The sad news out of New Jersey today is that longtime Senator Frank Lautenberg has died at the age of 89 of complications from viral pneumonia. Lautenberg had battled cancer and was serving his fifth (non-consecutive) and final term in the Senate. He was the last remaining World War II veteran in the Senate, having served until 1946.
Lautenberg, the son of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, was active in facilitating Jewish immigration from the former Soviet Union, most notably with the Lautenberg Amendment of 1989, which made it easier to claim refugee status. The law helped not only Jews from Eastern Europe but persecuted minorities worldwide. The Jewish community in the U.S. and abroad has benefited enormously from Lautenberg’s philanthropic generosity, for which he was honored May 29 by Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life. As those who knew him can attest, Lautenberg’s charitable giving was matched by a personal graciousness that never left him even after his health did.
New Jersey electoral law gives the sitting governor the ability to appoint a temporary senator to fill the seat until a special election can be held, likely in November. As Governor Chris Christie is a Republican, speculation will begin immediately on whom he will appoint to the seat. One option is State Senator Joe Kyrillos, who lost a bid to unseat the state’s other senator, Bob Menendez, last year.
Whoever fills the seat temporarily won’t have much of a head start in defending it against the Democratic nominee, who was expected to be Newark Mayor Cory Booker in 2014. That means name recognition and a fundraising network will be crucial–factors that would seem to make Tom Kean Jr., a state senator and the son of Tom Kean Sr., the popular former two-term New Jersey governor who also chaired the 9/11 Commission, a possible choice. Kean Jr. ran against Menendez in 2006 and lost by nine points. The Keans are moderate Republicans with deep roots in New Jersey.
New Jersey’s few Republican congressional districts are mostly safe districts, so a member of the House would be unlikely to give up his seat for a long-shot Senate run–though Chris Smith and Scott Garrett would be the two such Republicans with the name recognition and fundraising who might be tempted. Another possibility would be Jon Runyan, the former professional football player who joined Congress in 2011 and won reelection last year.
Runyan’s district–which abuts Chris Smith’s–was traditionally a Republican district under longtime congressman Jim Saxton, though a Democrat succeeded Saxton briefly before Runyan won the seat back for Republicans. He may end up solidifying his hold on that district, but at the moment he is more vulnerable than Garrett or Smith. (It’s also doubtful New Jerseyans statewide would hold his Philadelphia Eagles career against him, but he might want to throw on a Giants or Jets cap if he runs for the Senate just to be sure.)
One aspect of this to keep in mind is the fact that the Senate election may run alongside Christie’s gubernatorial election. If Christie had already won reelection, he would be free to appoint a conservative that would energize the base and win him plaudits, even if grudgingly, from conservatives around the country. But he doesn’t want to give Democrats any issue for the fall campaign that would damage the reputation for bipartisanship he has so carefully cultivated. I wouldn’t bet on a Tea Partier, then, nor would I expect him to appoint a loose cannon or someone with no chance to make a respectable showing. This raises the possibility that he could appoint Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno, since he has already run a tandem election with her, but it would also tie him more closely to the fate of the seat.
Kean (the younger) probably fits the bill. Even on the (seemingly remote) possibility the election could be put off until next year, Christie’s interim appointment would still be made during Christie’s reelection campaign, making Kean the most likely choice. There is the outside chance Christie could appoint a Democrat (like Booker) to avoid having to run alongside any Republican so as not to take any chances. But that would almost surely put him permanently on the outs with the national party’s base and wouldn’t be worth the trouble.