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Lautenberg's Death Sets Up Election Scramble for NJ Senate Seat

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Monday, 03 Jun 2013 09:53 AM

U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey, a liberal Democrat and the Senate's last surviving World War II veteran, died on Monday from complications of viral pneumonia, his office said. He was 89 and will likely be temporarily replaced by a Republican.

President Barack Obama's Democrats will retain control of the Senate, but they will have one less vote next week when the sharply divided chamber begins consideration of Obama's top legislative priority, overhaul of the U.S. immigration system.

Lautenberg had battled a number of ailments in recent months that limited his ability to go to the Capitol. One of the few times he was there was in April to vote for Obama's bid to expand background checks for gun owners. The measure was defeated primarily by Republicans.

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New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a potential 2016 White House contender, is expected to name a fellow Republican to replace Lautenberg until a new senator is elected by state voters.

Christie may pick someone willing to work with Obama, given that the two became allies during the 2012 White House race when Obama helped him get federal aid after Superstorm Sandy.

It was not immediately clear under state law if an election would be held this November or in November 2014, as previously scheduled, to replace Lautenberg, who earlier this year announced he would not seek re-election in 2014.

The last time New Jersey elected a Republican senator was in 1972, when it picked Clifford Case.

Lautenberg's death leaves Obama's Democrats in control of the Senate by a margin of 54-45.

Lautenberg died as the Senate prepared to begin debate next week on an Obama-backed bill to implement the biggest change in a generation of U.S. immigration laws.

Backers of the bipartisan immigration bill said they had been confident that Lautenberg would have voted for the measure.

They also said that even if Christie picked a Republican to replace Lautenberg, the new senator would likely support the bill because of the state's big Hispanic population.

Matthew Hale, an associate political science professor at Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J., said it's unclear what Christie will end up doing and how it may impact the immigration bill.

"Christie might even consider someone who is conservative on immigration as a way to appeal to hard-line conservatives nationally who don't really like him," Hale said.

New Jersey Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno is seen as a possible front-runner for the Senate appointment, though state Sen. Tom Kean and U.S. Rep. Chris Smith, both Republicans, also are seen as possibilities.

Newark Mayor Cory Booker, a rising black Democratic star, has long been seen as Lautenberg's likely elected successor.

Booker may still be a favorite, but he now faces the more difficult prospect of running against an incumbent Republican.

Brigid Harrison, a political science professor at Montclair State University, speculated that Christie might cross the political aisle and appoint Booker to the Senate.

"The appointment of Cory Booker could ingratiate him and endear him to a constituency who may not be in the governor's corner -- especially African-American voters," Harrison said.

"Looking ahead to 2016, this would also give credence to the claim of bipartisanship in New Jersey," Harrison added.

David Redlawsk, a political science professor at Rutgers University, said picking Booker could end up hurting Christie.

"If I were Chris Christie, and I was thinking about running on the Republican presidential ticket and facing Republican primary voters, that would just be a political bombshell and the right wing will run against him on it," Redlawsk said.

Christie, who clashed with Lautenberg over the years, gave no immediate indication who he may name to replace the senator, but made it clear he would miss him -- despite their differences.

"We very often didn't agree, and we had some pretty good fights between us over time -- battles on philosophy and the role of government," Christie said, scrapping a prepared speech in favor of a salute to the fallen senator at a women's conference.

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"Whenever we lose someone who's committed to public service and has been an honest and dedicated public servant as Senator Lautenberg was, it's a loss for everyone," Christie said.

© 2015 Thomson/Reuters. All rights reserved.

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