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A small group of New Jersey politicians are being floated as likely replacements for embattled Sen. Bob Menendez (D., N.J.), who is under investigation by the Senate Ethics Committee over his relationship with a donor facing allegations of political corruption and fraud.
New Jersey’s constitution gives governors the ability to appoint interim senators. After appointing an interim senator, the governor then has the choice of either calling a special election or waiting until the 2013 general election to fill the seat with a permanent replacement.
This means that Chris Christie, New Jersey’s tremendously popular Republican governor, may have a chance to turn red a Senate seat held by Democrats since 1982.
Experts on New Jersey politics are floating the names of three state Republicans as likely Christie appointees in the event of Menendez’s resignation: Senate Minority Leader Thomas Kean Jr., Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, and state Sen. Joseph Kyrillos Jr.
Kean, the son of former New Jersey governor Thomas Kean Sr., is the “clear frontrunner,” said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute.
Kean proved his mettle by running “a pretty good campaign against Menendez” in 2006, Murray said. Kean lost that race by eight points, making it the smallest margin of victory for any Democratic Senate incumbent during that election cycle.
Christie “looks up immensely” to the senior Kean, Murray said, and the former governor may wield his continued influence in the state to push for his son’s appointment should Menendez step down.
Christie could also leverage the Senate appointment in a way that boosts his likely presidential aspirations.
A Guadagno appointment, Murray said, would “give more credence to [Christie’s] claims that he’s going to appeal to all different groups.” With Republicans hoping to do a better job courting female voters in 2016, Christie’s appeal with women would be a strong selling point should he decide to run.
A New Jersey Republican source told the Weekly Standard that a Kyrillos appointment is “likely” in the event of Menendez’s resignation. Murray noted he is a “very close friend of Gov. Christie.”
But Kyrillos’s poor showing in his 2012 Senate run against Menendez—he lost by nearly 19 points—worried New Jersey Republicans. Since any appointee will likely face an election in November 2013, Republicans want an electable candidate who can leverage incumbency to hold the seat.
As a result, Murray suggested, Christie is less likely to appoint Kyrillos than Guadagno or Kean.
Bob Ingle, a political columnist for Gannett New Jersey newspapers and the coauthor of Soprano State: New Jersey’s Culture of Corruption, also named Kean, Guadagno, and Kyrillos as the three most likely appointees if the opportunity arises.
But Ingle and Murray both said that, at this point, they don’t see Menendez resigning.
Menendez was forced to repay a donor nearly $60,000 for flights to the Dominican Republic on the donor’s private jet. The senator faces allegations he slept with underage Dominican prostitutes during those trips.
Update, 3:52 p.m.: This post has been updated to note that an election to choose Menendez’s potential replacement would take place in 2013, not 2014.