Senator Frank Lautenburg’s death yesterday opened up a political goldmine for the Republican Party. However, it opened up a can of worms for their party’s standard-bearer in the state.
According to state election law, Governor Chris Christie has the power to appoint a replacement. Considerable debate rages over whether a special election has to be held in 2013 or whether a replacement can be appointed until the 2014 general election. Whatever is decided it is likely the Democratic nominee, Newark Mayor Corey Booker will run in either or both elections. Booker may have a primary challenger but it is unlikely that challenger or a GOP replacement can beat him in 2013 or 2014.
Christie is widely viewed to have national ambitions. Many pro-business, moderate Republicans would like to see him run for the White House in 2016. However, he still has to get reelected in 2013. He easily leads his opponent, who has failed to gain traction. But, if Christie were to appoint a GOP replacement, even if only as a placeholder, he could annoy conservative Democrats and Independents in the state who support him. Furthermore, Christie would likely prefer to not be on the ballot in 2013 with an open Senate seat also at stake. This would surely drive Democratic turnout, especially if an African-American like Booker is running.
But Christie could take the plunge regardless. It is obvious that Christie needs to repair his image with the GOP base otherwise he could be a rerun of Romney. Romney won business-minded and moderate Republicans but failed to win over conservatives. If Christie appoints a placeholder he could appear weak and indecisive. Party elites could also turn on him for not appointing somebody who could have a chance at holding the seat (the GOP has not won a Senate race in the state since 1972). So Christie could turn to a conservative such as state Senator Joe Kyrillos or Tom Kean Jr. If he goes for a placeholder former GOP Governors Todd Whitman and Tom Kean move to the top of the list.
Still, all these possibilities aside I have to wonder if who he picks matters. As mentioned above, the GOP has not won a Senate race in the state since 1972 and it has not been for want of trying nor a lack of talent. Moving beyond New Jersey and to Christie’s future presidential ambitions it is unlikely anything he does here heals the rift he has with his party. Social and fiscal conservatives may like his style but his record is far more moderate. Furthermore, the last time a major party candidate from the Northeast won a Presidential election was Kennedy in 1960. His win was hardly a landslide. Since Kennedy three major party nominees from the Northeast have challenged in the general election. They all lost.
One cannot rule out that Christie will appoint a Democrat to the seat. Afterall, in 2012 New Jersey voters reelected Lautenburg despite him barely campaigning. But if Christie did so it would show he has no ambitions outside the state as his brand would be utterly destroyed in elite GOP circles.
So while it may seem that Christie can play his cards right and come out of this a winner the truth is far from this. Whoever Christie appoints will likely be no better than a net even for him and at worst, well, much worse. Appoint a Democrat, hurt your brand among partisans, appoint a placeholder, ditto, appoint a conservative and jeopardize your reelection prospects.
For any sitting GOP Governor in a blue state with national ambitions, those options and conclusions would have to be considered a lose-lose scenario.
Update: Christie has decided to set the date for a special election in October 2013 and has signaled he will appoint a placeholder for the seat. Said one senior national Republican strategist, “I think this ends his chances for 2016.” Very likely true.