The peril of mortality

The peril of mortality has sparked a debate among Democrats over the political future of 85-year-old Frank Lautenberg. Some Democrats think he should retire from the United States Senate before Republican Christopher Christie is sworn in as governor in January. That would give Gov. Jon Corzine the ability to appoint a Democrat to replace him, and have ten months of incumbency before a November 2010 special election to fill the remaining four years of Lautenberg's term. But realistically, Lautenberg isn't going anywhere, at least not voluntarily. He tried retirement once before and did not especially enjoy it. The chances of Democrats, in Washington or in New Jersey, convincing him to walk away from his Senate seat early is slim to none.

Democrats have a short window before Christie takes office to pass a new law that would change the way U.S. Senate vacancies are filled. If Lautenberg's service in the Senate were to end over the next four years, Christie could appoint a Republican to fill his seat. There could be a special election in November 2010 – the mid-term election year of a Democratic president – or in November 2011, when it might be tougher to turn out voters.

There are two ways Democrats could go: the power of filling U.S. Senate seats could be taken away from the governor, with the seat remaining vacant until a special election could be held perhaps sixty days later; or forcing the governor to appoint someone from a list of names supplied to them by the political party that held the seat – a move that would trigger a vote of the New Jersey Democratic State Committee with the top three candidates being presented to Christie.

New Jersey Republicans have not won a U.S. Senate race since 1972, and Lautenberg's mortality – an issue that was raised when U.S. Rep. Rob Andrews challenged him in the 2008 Democratic primary – could offer the GOP's best shot at having a Republican U.S. Senator. The peril of mortality