The death Monday of NJ Sen. Frank Lautenberg presents Gov. Chris Christie with a host of difficult choices. This being New Jersey, of course, it is even more complicated as state law appears to be in conflict. It is unclear if a special election to fill the seat would occur this year, during the state’s general election this November, or in the election next year. The implications of each affect Christie’s calculus on this, his first big, national political test.
Currently Christie is on path to a relatively smooth reelection this November. He leads his Democrat opponent by around 30 points and has raised almost three times as much money. His bromance with Barack Obama over Sandy Recovery efforts has improved his standing with state Democrats. It has also, however, weakened his standing with some base Republican voters he will need to secure the nomination, should he run for President in 2016.
Christie will appoint a replacement to take Lautenberg’s seat. A special election to name a successor would then take place at the next scheduled General Election. Because New Jersey’s primary for the 2013 election is on Tuesday, Republicans will argue that the next general election is in 2014. This is because there wouldn’t be the requisite time between the primary and general. Democrats will argue that the special should be held this November, as it would help them boost turnout in this year’s otherwise anti-climatic election.
They would also like the election this year because, if Christie has any ambition to seek the GOP nomination in 2016, he needs to appoint a Republican to fill Lautenberg’s seat. National Republicans may stomach his embrace of Obama as necessary to win reelection in a state the President carried by 18 points. Denying them a Senate seat with several critical votes on the horizon, however, would likely be unforgivable.
There is chatter about whether his selection would be a conservative or moderate or whether the selection would be a “caretaker” or would contest the seat. Those all take a back-seat to the question of when the special election would be held.
The Democrat candidate is certain to be Newark Mayor Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ). Christie does not want him on the ballot in 2013, where he could boost turnout of minority voters. Booker on the ballot in 2014 has no impact on Christie’s political ambitions.
In the coming days, Democrats and the media are likely to argue that Christie chose a successor from the same political party as Lautenberg. Christie likely has the fortitude to resist those calls. His decision is one reason you have elections.
How Christie handles his dilemma, too, is a reason you have primaries for the Presidential nomination.