Sen. Frank Lautenberg’s (D-N.J.) death has focused Washington’s political spotlight again on Gov. Chris Christie (R), who is confronting a choice with far-reaching implications for Senate Republicans and his own political future.
Christie has wide discretion over when to set a date for a special election to fill Lautenberg’s seat, or whether to simply appoint a placeholder to finish the late senator’s term.
But competing state statutes have complicated the options confronting the governor, who must weigh the impact on his reelection prospects this fall and a possible presidential bid in 2016.
Within hours of the news that Lautenberg had died from viral pneumonia, Christie’s dilemma was already the talk of pundits and strategists.
The GOP governor risks hurting his favorability among Democrats in this November’s gubernatorial election if he appoints a conservative candidate to the seat that Lautenberg, a liberal, held for 30 years.
But choosing a strong conservative could boost his fortunes with national Republicans, whose support he’ll need if he runs for president in 2016.
The conservative Drudge Report highlighted the problem when it led its site Monday with a picture of Christie touring New Jersey with President Obama, whom he has praised for his handling of the Hurricane Sandy recovery.
“Whose side are you on?” the headline read, alluding to the backlash Christie has faced from Republicans over his relationship with Obama.
Christie could appoint a centrist, who would be more competitive in a special election and would further burnish the governor’s middle-of-the-road credibility.
A third option would be for the governor to appoint a caretaker senator who wouldn’t run to keep the seat — someone who would appear above politics and could work on New Jersey issues without concern for electoral implications.
Tom Wilson, a former New Jersey GOP chairman, said it’s unlikely Christie would appoint a conservative Republican simply for the fact they are a rare breed in New Jersey.
A conservative appointee could also complicate Christie’s reelection prospects, Wilson said
“Going into reelection, I wouldn’t want to have the distraction of defending a very conservative pick,” Wilson said.
“The reality is that there aren’t a whole lot of conservatives available. We aren’t a terribly conservative state, nor are we a Republican Party that elects conservative candidates.”
The choice of an appointee could hinge on how Christie decides to proceed on a special election to replace Lautenberg.
One New Jersey statute suggests Christie can appoint a Senate successor to serve until next year’s general election, thereby avoiding a special election altogether.
Another more recent statute indicates a special election should occur on the same day as the upcoming November gubernatorial election, or a separate day this year.
If a special election takes place this upcoming November, there’s a chance a weak Republican candidate could drag down Christie’s performance in the governor’s race against Democrat Barbara Buono, who currently trails badly in polls.
Republicans also fear that a strong Democratic Senate candidate, like Newark Mayor Cory Booker, could boost Buono’s performance in the gubernatorial election. Booker announced earlier this year he planned to run for Lautenberg’s seat.
“Certainly having someone like Cory Booker on the ballot this November would augment [Buono’s effort to defeat Christie] because he would bring out voters that wouldn’t come out otherwise,” New Jersey Democratic Party Chairman John Wisniewski told The Hill.
But while Booker is likely the strongest candidate, he is not a sure thing.
Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D) has also indicated an interest in running for the seat, and has deeper ties within the state party, having served and campaigned for local candidates for two decades.
Wisniewski said state Democrats favor a special election in November this year, and believe New Jersey’s statutes are clear on the timing.
Sources have said that, were Christie to set the date for the special during next year’s general election, Democrats would consider suing over the conflicting statutes.
A decision from the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services, an arm of the state legislature, suggests the special election should occur next year.
Republicans favor that prospect because setting the election in November of 2014 would give Christie’s appointee — should he or she plan to run to keep the seat — an opportunity to establish a record and get in a solid year of fundraising prior to what’s expected to be a difficult race for Republicans.
Such a scenario would also guarantee Republicans an additional Senate seat through the midterm elections. Lautenberg’s death narrows the Democratic majority to 54 seats.
A number of potential GOP appointees have already emerged, including state Sen. Joe Kyrillos, a close friend of Christie, state Sen. Tom Kean Jr., Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno and Bramnick.
Bramnick told The Hill he hadn’t yet spoken to Christie about the appointment, but would be “happy to talk” to him in the days and weeks to come.
“The most important thing is, whatever he decides, I will support him.”
Other options include Rep. Rodney FrelinghuysenRodney FrelinghuysenHouse GOP picks two women to lead committees GOP struggles to find women to lead House committees Overnight Defense: NY/NJ bombings renew terror debate | US probes Syrian air strike | Senators push measure on Saudi arms sale MORE (R), who has been a leader on Hurricane Sandy relief in the House and who would follow in the footsteps of the two members of his family who previously served in the Senate.
Lautenberg had announced earlier this year that he was not going to seek reelection in 2014. He was the last World War II veteran serving in the U.S. Senate and held the record for the number of votes cast by a New Jersey senator with more than 9,000.
Christie gave no indication Monday on his plans, but praised Lautenberg at a women’s forum in Trenton.
“I think we’d all sign up today for a life like Frank Lautenberg had of 89 years of fighting and fighting hard,” he said.