Democratic Sen. Frank Lautenberg's death Monday presents the state's popular Republican governor with a series of decisions that carry consequences beyond who will serve as New Jersey's next U.S. senator. While Republicans and Democrats alike will be watching Christie's next moves closely, there's no telling what the governor — who has staked out a reputation for going his own way — will do.
"I give him praise on a life well-lived," Christie said of the Democratic senator with whom he frequently tangled. The governor made the comment during an appearance at a women's conference and then canceled the rest of his public schedule Monday, clearly mindful of the high stakes involved in choosing Lautenberg's successor.
Christie has wide latitude to choose Lautenberg's successor but it would be unusual for him to select a Democrat. Four states require the governor to choose a member of the outgoing senator's political party but New Jersey is not among them. With Lautenberg's death, the Senate now has 52 Democrats, 45 Republicans and two independents who often side with the Democrats.
For Christie, who has enjoyed strong approval ratings, picking the wrong successor might reflect poorly on him as he looks to win by a large margin against Democratic state Sen. Barbara Buono, who is considered an underdog against the well-known governor. Choosing a conservative might help him with national Republicans but could undercut his moderate bona fides, which have helped him connect with independents and Democrats in his state.
In the longer term, the wrong person could irk Republican leaders in Washington and activists in early voting states like Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. If Christie selects a Republican with views that are out of step with the GOP base — someone who supports abortion rights or gun control, for instance — it might hurt Christie with party stalwarts. The appointee's vote could tip the balance on issues like immigration reform, which the Senate is expected to begin debating in the weeks ahead.
Christie's appointee also could offer a window into the governor's own thinking on issues and thrust Christie into an ongoing fight between establishment Republicans and the GOP's tea party wing.
The governor, who has brought a blunt-speaking independent streak to the Republican Party, took flak from fellow Republicans when he appeared alongside President Barack Obama on the Jersey Shore in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, which struck the state about a week before the 2012 election. He appeared again with Obama last week to promote the Jersey Shore's recovery and repeatedly has spoken of the need for politics to be set aside for the good of his state.
Brad Dayspring, a spokesman for the U.S. Senate Republicans' campaign committee, said the governor has "demonstrated time and again that he will do what he believes is best" for his home state.
Picking a Democrat to carry the torch from Lautenberg — however unlikely — might win him bipartisan love in liberal-leaning New Jersey but would enrage Republicans already suspicious of Christie's chummy relations with Obama after Sandy. Christie has maintained good relations with Newark's Democratic mayor, Cory Booker, who decided to run for Senate instead of challenging Christie, but appointing the media-savvy Booker might be viewed as treasonous to Republicans.
"I don't envy the governor on his decision," said Julie Roginsky, a New Jersey-based Democratic strategist.
If Christie is looking for a well-regarded placeholder, he could turn to former Republican Gov. Tom Kean, who served two terms as governor from 1982 to 1990 and served as chairman of the 9/11 Commission.
Other Republican possibilities include Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, likely viewed as Christie's heir apparent if the governor runs for president; Kean's son, state Sen. Tom Kean Jr., who was defeated by Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez in 2006; state Sen. Joe Kyrillos, a Christie ally who was defeated by Menendez last year; former Gov. Christie Whitman; state Sen. Kevin O'Toole; or Bill Baroni, the deputy executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., has also been mentioned.
Roginsky said appointing a caretaker Republican like Kean, the moderate former governor, would not be viewed favorably by Republican leaders or party activists in early presidential voting states. But appointing a hard-core conservative "would definitely hurt him at home" as he runs for re-election.
While Christie appoints a senator to fill Lautenberg's seat, it's unclear when that new senator would face an election. Even that process carries risks for Christie.
He could decide to hold a special election in November, but the presence on the ballot of Booker, the likely Democratic Senate nominee, might drive more Democratic turnout and affect Christie's ability to win big against Buono. If Christie says the next Senate election should wait until 2014, the governor runs the risk of a hand-picked Republican getting trounced by Booker only months before launching a presidential bid.
Dayspring said a 2013 contest could mean a "potentially ugly and quick" primary between Booker, who already had announced a Senate bid, and potential challengers like Reps. Frank Pallone and Rob Andrews. A 2014 race, he said, would allow a Republican appointee to "build trust and name identification with voters."
The state's laws on choosing a successor appear to be contradictory. One provision says that if a vacancy occurs more than 70 days before a regularly scheduled statewide general election, the vacancy would be filled on the next statewide general election — Nov. 5, 2013 — when Christie will be on the ballot. But another law says the election would be held during the next general election only if the vacancy occurs 70 days before the state's primary, which was being held Tuesday. In that case, the Senate election would be held in November 2014, when Lautenberg's seat was scheduled to be considered by voters. The late senator had said he would not run for re-election.
National Republicans say they want the Senate election to be held in 2014 and hope Christie appoints a GOP official who will run for the seat outright. The thinking: It would give the appointee more than a year to serve in the Senate and build a record that might help the person in the Democratic-tilting state.
New Jersey has not elected a Republican to the Senate since 1972. The last Republican to serve in the Senate was Nicholas Brady, who was appointed by Kean in 1982 to finish the term of Democrat Harrison Williams, who resigned amid scandal in the last year of his term. Lautenberg won the seat later that year and remained in the Senate until his death, except for a brief retirement in 2001 and 2002.
Many governors have taken the placeholder route in recent years: Ted Kaufman, a longtime aide to Joe Biden, was appointed to the Senate when Biden became Obama's vice president; Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick chose his former chief of staff, William "Mo" Cowan, to fill Secretary of State John Kerry's Senate seat on an interim basis until after a special election.
Other appointments have turned into political liabilities. Former Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter, a Democrat, withstood criticism from Latinos for appointing then-Denver Public Schools Superintendent Michael Bennet to a Senate seat in January 2009 to replace Ken Salazar, who became Obama's interior secretary.
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Mulvihill reported from Haddonfield. Angela Delli Santi contributed from Trenton.