Christie Stakes High in Filling Lautenberg's Senate Seat, Likely to End Up in Court

PHOTO: Sen. Frank Lautenberg, right, D-NJ, listens as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie addresses a gathering in Lincoln Park, N.J., in this Aug. 31, 2011 photo.

The Senate vacancy caused by the death of New Jersey Sen. Frank Lautenberg was immediately enmeshed in national politics, the possible presidential ambitions of Gov. Chris Christie and conflicting laws about how to fill the vacancy.

"This is going to court," one Republican plotter said emphatically.

Asked about the political fallout and ramifications, Christie's top political adviser Bill Palatucci told ABC News, "I'm not going to say anything right now. It just happened. May he rest in peace."

The governor's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment even as aides announced Christie canceled all public appearances for today.

The death of Lautenberg, a Democrat who died today of complications from viral pneumonia, gives the Republicans a chance to pick up another seat in the Senate. According to one New Jersey law, Christie has the authority to immediately appoint someone to fill out Lautenberg's term, which would end in 2014.

"The opportunity for Republicans to appoint an interim senator who is someone chosen with the thought of running for a full term in 2014 should be very attractive to the Republicans," said John Weingart, associate director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University.

Read more about Sen. Frank Lautenberg's passing here.

Another and more recent statute, however, calls for a special election to come at the next election, which would be this November when Christie faces off in his gubernatorial re-election bid against state Sen. Barbara Buono.

In that scenario the nominees would be chosen by special state party conventions. Popular Newark Mayor Cory Booker has already expressed interest in running for Lautenberg's Senate seat.

Because U.S Senate is higher in the political pecking order, the race would have a higher ballot position than governor, meaning that Booker or another Democrat would be placed higher than Christie on the ballot.

A November Senate election could also mean a massive influx of Democratic cash into New Jersey, essentially selling an anti-Christie message. Christie has a 30 point lead over Buono, but a landslide reelection would boost his presidential prospects and the governor does not want more national money flying into the state or his name lower on the ballot.

"Don't be surprised if to see this end up in the courts," former New Jersey Republican chairman Tom Wilson told ABC News. "There's more than a U.S. Senate seat in play here. There are ramifications for the gubernatorial election. With the statues unclear, expect a legal, political battle royale to play out in the courts."

New Jersey Democratic Chairman John Wisniewski also said the process of filling Lautenberg's seat is murky.

"The statutes are less than clear or at least they are conflicting in one respect," Wisniewski told ABC News. "Since the appointment power rests with the governor, it will remain to be seen how we will respond. Our view is the more recent enactment calls for an election right now and that's the most recent pronouncement of legislative intent, so that should be the statute that should control. But there is another, older statute that is at odds with it in terms of timing."

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