GARDEN STATESMANSHIP JUNE 3, 2013
The death of 89-year-old Frank Lautenberg, the longtime Democratic senator, has put New Jersey’s Republican governor, Chris Christie, in an awkward position. Christie has to appoint somebody to Lautenberg’s vacated seat, likely a Republican who will, at some point, face a powerful Democratic opponent in an election. From a local perspective, he wants this selection not to prove a bump on the road toward his near-certain re-election in November. And from a national perspective, he wants his pick to endear him to the national Republican Party and its base as he looks ahead to the 2016 presidential primary. Throw in New Jersey’s odd politics and the presence of the popular, nationally known Cory Booker, Newark's Democratic mayor, and you have the makings of another remarkable episode in Christie’s sui generis career.
It is hard to see how Christie benefits from this situation. Most Republicans, around the country and in establishment positions, think of him as the guy who gave President Barack Obama invaluable P.R. in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, just a few days before Obama defeated Republican nominee Mitt Romney. Most New Jerseyans, by contrast, see him as an agreeably moderate, even post-partisan leader (he has a 69 percent approval rating in a state that has not supported the Republican presidential candidate since 1988). Particularly in these months before the November gubernatorial election, Christie is a house divided against himself. And Lautenberg’s death, because it forces him to declare himself in a national way, is like a tremor.
This is what we know: Christie gets to choose Lautenberg's replacement. Less clear are the statutes regarding the next election for that Senate seat, but Salon's Steve Kornacki, who used to cover New Jersey politics, reports that it is also up to Christie either to set a date for a special election before November’s elections or let it fall on November 5, the date of the gubernatorial election.
According to Montclair State University political scientist Brigid Harrison, typically the special election dovetails with the general election—it's less costly that way. Running the special election the same day would enable Christie, who is extraordinarily popular, to put the Republican appointee on his coattails, giving him or her a fighting chance of defeating the Democratic nominee, who is likely to be Booker—also an unusually strong candidate, with high name-recognition.1 That, in turn, could endear Christie to national Republicans.
On the other hand, dovetailing the elections would mean running for re-election against a ticket that has the popular Booker at its top, bringing out the Democratic (particularly black) vote and militating against a landslide victory for the governor, which he is banking on as he heads toward 2016. “What Christie is hoping for is an historic landslide, a la Tom Kean’s re-election in 1985,” explained Terry Golway, director of the Kean University Center for History, Politics & Policy. (According to Real Clear Politics, Christie is up 30 points on State Sen. Barbara Buono, who will be formally anointed the Democratic challenger after tomorrow’s primary.) For this reason, Golway advised Christie to schedule the special election for sometime before November.
The timing of the special election gets to the heart of the conundrum Christie faces: It is good for him if Republicans around the country, as well as the sort of party decision-makers who have a big influence over presidential primaries, see him as responsible for a Senate pick-up; but the very things that may help him accomplish that feat may, in other ways, hinder his career. This problem is only worse when considering whom he ought to appoint.
On the one hand, Christie should want to appoint someone who can defeat the Democrat. “He has to appoint a viable replacement,” explained Golway. “The Republican Party is watching Chris Christie right now with greater intensity than ever. Here’s an opportunity to give somebody an artificial incumbency—and let’s face it, that’s how it works—and if that candidate is perceived to have at least a chance at running the rest of Lautenberg’s term, then [Christie] will have done the party a huge service.”
On the other hand, given New Jersey’s left-of-center demographics (it last elected a Republican to the Senate in 1972), such a person is likely to be exactly the sort of moderate that many Republicans see, and disdain, in Christie himself. Should Christie appoint such a person, he might further damn himself in the eyes of the Republican base. Selecting a more conservative Republican, by contrast, would send the appointee to near-certain defeat.
Harrison pointed to four likely Republican fill-ins: former state Senator Bill Baroni; state Senator Kevin O’Toole; state Senator Joe Kyrillos; and state Senate Minority Leader Thomas Kean, Jr., the son of 1980s governor Thomas Kean, Sr. As the guy who last year ran against (and lost to) New Jersey’s other Democratic senator, Bob Menendez, Kyrillos is an eminently defensible pick, but his poor showing—Menendez, the subject of corruption allegations both professional and personal, won with 58 percent of the vote—makes him more questionable. Kean has the name recognition, but, like his father and Christie, is a moderate (also, he originally got his last two jobs, first in the state assembly and then the senate, via appointments).
Nick Acocella, of New Jersey politics newsletter Politifax, argued that several of the above candidates would be too moderate for the national party to stomach. He suggested Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno and Christie confidante Bill Palatucci. Another possibility would be to appoint Kean, Sr., as merely the uncontroversial placeholder. Also, don’t count out Geraldo, apparently.
There's yet another alternative. “I don’t think that it is out of the realm of possibility for Christie to appoint Booker to the seat,” said Harrison. Such an appointment has an immediate justification Christie could cite: that New Jersey’s voters elected a Democrat to Lautenberg’s seat, and therefore it is only fair that a Democrat replace him. If Christie appoints Booker, he likely sews up that coveted re-election landslide, ingratiating himself with New Jersey Democrats, Newark voters, and black voters at a time when it is far too late for Republicans to turn to anybody else. Picking Booker would, of course, enrage Republicans around the country, but Christie’s pitch in the 2016 Republican primary was always going to be that New Jersey is different and he is different.
A Booker appointment is a long shot, but that we are even discussing it—and I’m told that it isn’t only Harrison who is discussing it—is a sign of just how unique a figure Christie has become. “Part of his story is the unique appeal that enabled this unique Republican to lead a traditionally blue state,” noted Harrison. “If someone else—a Republican—is able to win statewide, that takes away from his story.”
This much is clear, though: Lautenberg’s death—to try to be polite about it—came at a very inconvenient time for Christie. “If I were in his shoes,” said Golway, “I would’ve preferred to sidestep this whole thing.”