Date of next NJ senate election unclear

WASHINGTON -- Sen. Frank Lautenberg re-joined the Senate after a court fight. The fight to replace him may spark another one.

That's because while Gov. Christie will choose a replacement for Lautenberg for at least the short term, it's unclear when voters will have a chance to choose a long-term replacement.

New Jersey law contains two contradictory clauses about filling a Senate vacancy: one would set up a special election this November, while one would put the election on hold until November 2014. Five sources in Washington and New Jersey -- three Democrats and two Republicans -- said the law is murky. Four of them said to expect a court fight if the election is not this year.

Democrats are eager for a faster election and Republicans are likely to want to wait until 2014. The sources all spoke on the condition of anonymity because they did not want to be seen delving into politics on the day of Lautenberg's death.

But each side has studied the issue because the timing of an election could have a significant impact on lawmaking in the Senate and on the competition to replace Lautenberg, a Democrat.

New Jersey is familiar with ballot disputes. Lautenberg returned to the Senate after being added to the 2002 ballot as a late replacement, jumping into the race over Republican objections who said it was too late to change candidates. That fight went to the state Supreme Court, which sided with Democrats and allowed Lautenberg to run in place of Sen. Robert Torricelli.

Christie is likely to appoint a Republican, tilting the balance in Washington, where Democrats, until now, controlled 55 seats, counting independents who caucus with them. A GOP appointee would give Democrats one fewer vote to count on when trying to overcome a filibuster and move legislation.

There is no specific time frame for when Christie must name a replacement. My Trenton-based colleague Matt Katz has a great run down on the governor's options, including hot names to watch as potential appointees.

But when it comes to voting on the issues, the most prominent New Jersey Republicans are moderates who hold positions to the left of most Republicans from the rest of the country -- and perhaps even to the left of some of the Senate's more conservative Democrats. Many New Jersey Republicans would be Democrats in other states, though none of the potential replacements would be as liberal as Lautenberg.

The timing of an election could also affect the race to replace Lautenberg. An election in 2014 would give a Christie appointee more than a year in office to build up his or her name recognition, campaign account and a legislative record.

But if the election was held more quickly -- this November -- the Republican appointee would have little time as an incumbent and would likely face Newark Mayor Cory Booker, who already has statewide recognition and a hefty war chest. 

An election this year might also help House members (say, Frank Pallone) who are considering a run for senate. They could run in 2013 without giving up their House seat. A run in 2014 would mean taking on Booker - the big Democratic favorite -- and losing their position in Congress.

The convoluted law also allows for Christie to call a special election at a time of his choosing, though that would come with a significant added cost to taxpayers and seems unlikely.