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.
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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."

Names being floated for an immediate appointment include Republicans who have lost to Democrats. One name is New Jersey state Senate GOP leader Tom Kean Jr., son of the popular former governor who lost to Sen. Bob Menendez in 2006. There's also state Sen. Joseph Kyrillos, former state GOP chairman who chaired Christie's 2009 campaign and lost to Menendez last year. Other potential appointees include Christie's Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, Assembly GOP leader Jon Bramnick, and Bill Baroni named by Christie in 2010 to serve as the deputy executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

An intriguing possibility floated by Brigid Harrison, political science professor at Montclair State University, is to appoint Booker instead of a Republican.

"My sense is that appointing Booker is actually a possibility because if he were to do that now looking ahead at his own gubernatorial election and 2016 presidential run, he would appoint someone who is obviously a frontrunner with a campaign war chest, but also claim credit for appointing a very popular African-American to the United States senate," Harrison told ABC News.

Harrison says it won't just help in state politics, but is a bipartisan message that could help in the presidential general election if he wants to run in 2016.

"I think you would be hard pressed to find anyone in the state of New Jersey who could match Booker in any type of election statewide and so because Sen. Lautenberg was a Democrat… I think the governor can rationalize his appointment of Cory Booker…people in his caucus will not be happy about it, but I think he is probably the one politician in the country to get away with that," Harrison said, noting it would be a "rather remarkable national event," and stressing she hasn't discussed this possibility with the governor.

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