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NJ Senate candidates scramble to gather 1,000 signatures in mere days

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, center, stands in Manville, N.J., Monday, May 13, 2013, during a campaign event. (Photo by Mel Evans/AP)
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, center, stands in Manville, N.J., Monday, May 13, 2013, during a campaign event.

Gov. Chris Christie’s decision to hold an October special election didn’t just irk both parties gunning for the state’s now vacant Senate seat—his compressed time frame also puts potential candidates in a bind, with signatures due on Monday to be on the August ballot.

Now, both parties and campaigns face a stark reality. Each potential candidate must gather 1,000 signatures to be on the Aug. 13 primary ballot, due to the New Jersey Secretary of State by 4 p.m. on June 10.

Democrats are still heavily favored to hold the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg’s seat, though they now face a competitive primary, with House members getting a free pass if they want to run. And while Republicans had hoped a November 2014 contest would be at least marginally better for their chances and give the interim senator time to build a campaign and support, trying to recruit or keep a candidate competitive in such a short window is immensely harder with an October, low turnout, election.

Also, many potential GOP candidates seem to be waiting to see who Christie picks to temporarily fill Lautenberg’s seat, and whether or not that person is interested in running for a full term.

Christie is expected to appoint a replacement within the week, with the governor waiting until after Lautenberg’s funeral out of respect. Most politicians, especially Democrats, have avoided overt politicking for the same reason, but with the need to drum up support so quickly, potential candidates have had to move quickly behind the scenes.

Former Gov. Tom Kean Sr. is believed to be Christie’s top choice as the interim, but many doubt the 78 year-old lawmakers wants the job. Several sources say his son, Tom Kean Jr., a state senator who was the 2006 Senate nominee is interested, but may not be atop Christie’s list. Last year’s Senate nominee, state Sen. Joe Kyrillos, could be another possibility.

Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, a female, pro-choice Republican, would be an attractive choice who could make the contest a more competitive. But with Christie’s number two on the path toward being governor, especially if Christie runs in 2016, taking a risky appointment without certain reward likely isn’t that appealing.

National Republicans are very interested in wealthy biotech executive John Crowley, either as an appointment or to mount his own campaign. The Republican businessman has a compelling story captured on the big screen in Extraordinary Measures, detailing how he helped start his his company to research a rare disease that threatened his young children’s lives. Crowley has flirted with a bid before, and could also put his own money into a race, making him even more appealing to Republicans justifiably hesitant to play in a tough race.

Other state legislators have shown interest in the race, though they’d likely face even longer odds. According to the Newark Star Ledger, Assemblyman John Bramnick and state Sen. Michael Doherty are interested. Former Bogota mayor and conservative activist Steve Lonegan, who now directs the New Jersey chapter of Americans for Prosperity and ran against Christie in the 2009 gubernatorial primary, became the first to announce his candidacy on Wednesday.

Democrats look like they will have a competitive primary, especially bad news for Newark Mayor Cory Booker who thought he’d have more than two and a half months to build his Senate campaign. With Reps. Frank Pallone and Rush Holt likely in, Booker still has an edge, but Pallone has a $3.7 million war chest that can’t be ignored. Booker had $1.6 million in his Senate campaign account at the end of March, while Holt has about $800,000 in his House campaign fund.

Republicans have been quick to point out that Democrats will have a messy primary, but whoever wins the nomination will be heavily favored, even against a strong GOP appointed incumbent. State Democrats still haven't ruled out legal action to get Christie to call for a November election, either.

Still, the best upshot for Republicans is that, whenever Christie makes his pick -- they will have one more GOP vote – at least until October -- as the Senate heads into a busy, and crucial, summer session with immigration reform, budget battles, and judicial picks on the agenda.