The last time there was so much discussion about a possible vacancy in the United States Senate was in May 1981, after Democrat Harrison Williams was convicted on federal corruption charges in the ABSCAM scandal. Maintaining his innocence and vowing an appeal, Williams refused to resign. After Republican Thomas Kean was elected governor in November (by 1,797 votes), Democrats began putting some intense pressure to resign so that the outgoing Democratic governor, Brendan Byrne, could fill the seat before Kean took office.
On January 20, 1982 – the day of Kean's inauguration – there was much speculation that Williams (who had not yet been sentenced) would quit the Senate. Just in case, Byrne went to the inaugural with a letter appointing a Democratic Senator. But Williams, who attended Kean's swearing in, would not give up his seat.
Byrne refused to say who he would have appointed, although in 2002, he told PolitickerNJ.com that his choice would have been former Senate President Joseph Merlino (D-Trenton).
Williams was sentenced in February to three years in federal prison, but still would not leave office. A few weeks later, as the U.S. Senate prepared to expel him, he spoke on the Senate floor for four hours pleading with his colleagues to allow him to stay until after his appeal. He did not resign until March 12, 1982, when it became clear that the Senate was prepared to oust him.
Kean appointed a Republican, Nicholas Brady, to fill Williams' seat. The new governor did not want to take sides in a GOP primary between Millicent Fenwick and Jeffrey Bell, both friends and supporters of his campaign for governor. Fenwick narrowly won the primary and then lost the general election to Democrat Frank Lautenberg.
Most likely, had Merlino been the incumbent, Lautenberg might not have challenged him in the Democratic primary. Instead, Merlino ran for Congress and lost to freshman U.S. Rep. Christopher Smith (R-Hamilton).