As Senate colleagues and fellow New Jersey residents learned the news on Monday morning that Democratic Sen. Frank Lautenberg died at age 89, speculation began over what would happen next in Garden State politics.
From Trenton to Washington, D.C., betting is strong that Republican Gov. Chris Christie will appoint his closest political friend, state Sen. Joe Kyrillos, to the vacant seat, raising GOP seats in the Senate from 45 to 46, at least until a special election is held.
Earlier this year, amid speculation that corruption charges would bring down New Jersey's other Democratic senator, Robert Menendez, top GOP sources throughout the state were unanimous in assuring Newsmax that Kyrillos would be tapped to the vacancy.
"It is 99 percent certain that Sen. Kyrillos would get the appointment," David Norcross, former N.J. Republican National Committeeman and state party chairman, told Newsmax. "Chris and Joe are very, very close."
James Courter, a former congressmen and 1989 Republican gubernatorial nominee, agreed, telling Newsmax without hesitation: "If Menendez is forced to resign, Joe Kyrillos will be appointed."
Menendez weathered the storm and remains in the Senate. But with the passing of Lautenberg creating a Senate vacancy and giving Christie the appointment, speculation about 53-year-old Kyrillos is again rampant.
A 20-year state senator and former Republican state chairman, Kyrillos chaired Christie's first campaign for governor in 2009. Since then, his role as "first friend" to the governor has been likened to that of Republican Sen. Paul Laxalt of Nevada to President Ronald Reagan during the 1980s.
Kyrillos carried the Republican banner in 2012 against Menendez but lost by a margin of 58 percent to 40 percent.
Kyrillos, considered a moderate-conservative in the mold of Christie, is also the sponsor of legislation to put the reinstitution of the death penalty on the state ballot. Like Christie, he has had his problems with the local tea party movement, although several sources say the relationship between Kyrillos and tea partiers in his district is now "cordial."
Other Republicans mentioned for the appointment in published reports include Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno (now running for re-election on Christie's ticket) and state Senate Republican Leader Tom Kean Jr., namesake son of the former governor.
Under state election law, the governor can make an appointment to fill the vacancy. However, because of the timing of Lautenberg's death, a special election must be held sometime this year, rather than the appointed senator holding the seat until when Lautenberg's six-year term is up in November 2014.
Although he could call it for another date, Christie is expected to call the election for November 5, the same day voters decide on his own re-election, which now appears a shoo-in.
By helping a Republican secure another year in the Senate, Christie could improve his stock among his party's grass-roots — many of whom have not forgiven the governor for embracing President Barack Obama during Superstorm Sandy relief just before the presidential election last year.
With Lautenberg having announced months ago he was retiring in 2014, the likely Democratic nominee is Newark Mayor Cory Booker. Booker is likely to square off in any special election this year as well as compete for the full term next year.
If Booker is elected, he would become his state's first black senator and the first black Democrat in the Senate since Barack Obama left to become president.
Kyrillos, the expected appointee, would be the first Republican senator from New Jersey since Nicholas Brady was appointed to fill a vacancy in 1982.The last time a Republican was elected to the Senate from the state was 1972, when Clifford Case won his fourth and final term.
John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax
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