Commentary Magazine


Topic: New Jersey Senate race

Christie’s Cynical if Deft Senate Play

As I wrote earlier today, people who thought the death of Senator Frank Lautenberg put New Jersey Governor Chris Christie in a tight spot underestimated the strength of his position and overestimated the trouble the opening up of the seat might cause him. The governor acted with characteristic decisiveness this afternoon by announcing that he was calling a special election for October to replace Lautenberg while not saying who would fill the seat during the next four months. This didn’t please national Republicans who would have liked Christie to make the appointment be one that lasts until November 2014, when the next federal election is held. And New Jersey Democrats are crying foul about the fact that this will mean the state’s voters will be asked to go to the polls twice within a month, first to just elect a senator who will be up for re-election in 13 months and then in November for the regularly scheduled vote for governor and the entire state legislature, costing the state tens of millions.

But no one should be under any illusions that these complaints will have the least impact on Christie’s chances of reelection or of getting the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. Though the decision was delivered with an equally characteristic self-serving cynicism, Christie came out on top here, as he always seems to do, maximizing the personal benefits of the situation while diminishing his rivals.

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As I wrote earlier today, people who thought the death of Senator Frank Lautenberg put New Jersey Governor Chris Christie in a tight spot underestimated the strength of his position and overestimated the trouble the opening up of the seat might cause him. The governor acted with characteristic decisiveness this afternoon by announcing that he was calling a special election for October to replace Lautenberg while not saying who would fill the seat during the next four months. This didn’t please national Republicans who would have liked Christie to make the appointment be one that lasts until November 2014, when the next federal election is held. And New Jersey Democrats are crying foul about the fact that this will mean the state’s voters will be asked to go to the polls twice within a month, first to just elect a senator who will be up for re-election in 13 months and then in November for the regularly scheduled vote for governor and the entire state legislature, costing the state tens of millions.

But no one should be under any illusions that these complaints will have the least impact on Christie’s chances of reelection or of getting the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. Though the decision was delivered with an equally characteristic self-serving cynicism, Christie came out on top here, as he always seems to do, maximizing the personal benefits of the situation while diminishing his rivals.

Let’s first dispense with the question of whether Christie should have made the appointment one that would last until the end of 2014. His failure to do so does hurt the Republicans in the Senate, as the odds are that, barring a miracle, the seat will revert to the Democrats after the October special election. But his stated reasons for that decision—the principles of democracy—are pure New Jersey baloney. The state law regarding such appointments is ambiguous enough to allow for a long appointment, but it would have been challenged in court by Democrats who are confident about the liberal judiciary there backing up their gambit. A 2013 Senate election allows Christie to avoid that mess as well as preventing voters in that blue state from associating him with a move that would strengthen a very conservative GOP caucus.

This will cause some hard feelings in Washington Republican circles, but most will understand that Christie’s first obligation is to get re-elected. Besides, if he does enter the 2016 race, there will be other reasons for the right to resist Christie. Doing anything to please people who will probably never support him in a presidential primary isn’t worth his time.

As for scheduling what seems to be an unnecessary special election, Christie has opened himself up to charges of doing exactly the thing that he complains about when other people are in power: wasting money. The notion that the extra month gained by an elected senator from the time of the governor’s appointment is worth the trouble is absurd, especially since the senator that wins in October will have to turn around and run the next year as well.

But the scheduling maximizes Christie’s chances of rolling up a big reelection win in November as well as the possibility that his appeal will help the state GOP take control of both houses of the New Jersey legislature. Had the special election been on the same day, a popular Democratic Senate candidate like Newark Mayor Corey Booker might have generated a big minority turnout that would have lowered Christie’s totals and helped his opposition in Trenton. But if those minorities turn out in October, the odds are, many, if not most will stay home in November allowing that Election Day to belong to Christie.

Those who claim this shows Christie is afraid of Booker are forgetting that it was the mayor who ducked the governor’s race this year specifically because he knows he couldn’t beat Christie. But separating the Senate race from the state elections maximizes Christie’s chances of making the kind of splash in a blue state that will enhance his presidential credentials. The special election also makes it harder on Booker because it allows incumbent Democratic members of Congress to try their chances against him without losing their seats.

The point here is that even though Christie’s public rationale for these decisions rings false, his ability to stick to his self-righteous story will allow him to ignore the criticisms. If all goes as planned, he will be reelected easily, be able to govern with a more pliable legislature and then be able to consider a presidential run with a landslide win to his credit. If some conservatives or Democrats think he doesn’t play fair or tell the truth about his motivations, they’re right. But this won’t cost him many votes.

For all of the brickbats his decision earns him, Christie remains in the catbird seat and anyone who thinks different doesn’t understand how he thinks or what he stands to gain this year.

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Christie in Trouble? He’s in the Catbird Seat

Conventional wisdom tells us that when we get lemons we should make lemonade, and that is exactly what the mainstream liberal media is doing today as they contemplate the loss of a Democratic seat in the Senate with the death of Frank Lautenberg. This gives New Jersey Governor Chris Christie the chance to do what every governor longs for: appoint a U.S. senator. Yet if you read the New York Times today, you’d think Christie was the real victim of this turn of events. The headline on the story: “Death of Senator Places Christie in Difficult Spot” captures the gist of the piece, the conceit of which is the premise that by being forced to name a Republican to sit in the Senate, the governor has been given a hopeless choice between lessening his chances for re-election this November or throwing away any hope of being the GOP presidential nominee in 2016. The Washington Post is a bit less dire when it describes his dilemma as a “tough choice.”

Yet while Christie does have a complex set of options before him, the idea that he is in any danger is absurd. Rather than being pushed into a corner, Christie is sitting pretty. There is little chance that any of the possible choices he has been given could possibly endanger his re-election. Nor is it likely that he will pick anyone that will so embitter national Republicans as to diminish his chances in 2016. What Christie does have is the chance to further enhance his power and influence, both locally and nationally. Far from hurting Christie, Lautenberg’s death 17 months before his seat would have been up for grabs in the midterm elections focuses the political world on the governor, and that is exactly what he likes.

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Conventional wisdom tells us that when we get lemons we should make lemonade, and that is exactly what the mainstream liberal media is doing today as they contemplate the loss of a Democratic seat in the Senate with the death of Frank Lautenberg. This gives New Jersey Governor Chris Christie the chance to do what every governor longs for: appoint a U.S. senator. Yet if you read the New York Times today, you’d think Christie was the real victim of this turn of events. The headline on the story: “Death of Senator Places Christie in Difficult Spot” captures the gist of the piece, the conceit of which is the premise that by being forced to name a Republican to sit in the Senate, the governor has been given a hopeless choice between lessening his chances for re-election this November or throwing away any hope of being the GOP presidential nominee in 2016. The Washington Post is a bit less dire when it describes his dilemma as a “tough choice.”

Yet while Christie does have a complex set of options before him, the idea that he is in any danger is absurd. Rather than being pushed into a corner, Christie is sitting pretty. There is little chance that any of the possible choices he has been given could possibly endanger his re-election. Nor is it likely that he will pick anyone that will so embitter national Republicans as to diminish his chances in 2016. What Christie does have is the chance to further enhance his power and influence, both locally and nationally. Far from hurting Christie, Lautenberg’s death 17 months before his seat would have been up for grabs in the midterm elections focuses the political world on the governor, and that is exactly what he likes.

It’s true that choosing a senator makes the person deciding the appointment one friend—the nominee—and a lot of enemies in all the people who aren’t picked. But the New Jersey Republican Party is not a team of equals. Christie’s popularity and power dwarfs that of everyone else. At this point he can pick anyone he wants and need fear no repercussions at home.

Nor is there much chance that national conservatives will hold it against him if he nominates a moderate Republican since there really aren’t very many conservatives of stature in the state to choose from. Indeed, as much as many conservatives around the nation resent Christie for his dalliances with President Obama and criticism of the Republican leadership in the House of Representatives, the governor is, in fact, very much a conservative in the context of New Jersey politics. So long as Christie picks someone who will vote with the Senate GOP caucus for as long as they are in the seat, he won’t suffer for it.

The question of the timing of the special election to replace Lautenberg is tricky and could potentially create some problems for Christie, who is up for re-election this year. The Republicans would prefer to hold the election in 2014 and let Christie’s pick hold the seat for a year and a half, but Christie won’t do anything to cloud his image in this way. If the Senate vote is held this November, it raises the possibility that a groundswell for popular Newark Mayor Corey Booker—the likely Democratic nominee—could increase turnout and make it harder for Christie to win by a landslide or use his coattails to help the GOP make big gains in the New Jersey legislature. But if the two elections are held together it’s the Democrats who should worry. It’s been a few decades since a Republican won a Senate seat in New Jersey, but having a political dynamo like Christie with strong bipartisan support gives the GOP its best chance to win an upset. If Christie picks an attractive candidate to run with him, Democrats have to know they will be in for a much tougher fight than if the governor wasn’t on the ballot. If the election is held at another time, no one will blame Christie if the Democrats win in what is a very blue seat.

Far from hurting the governor, his choice gives him another opportunity to demonstrate his political mastery over his state. Whether his choice holds the seat or not, a good pick who is able to run a competitive campaign will only make Christie look good. Moreover, the process that will play out now will give the public another opportunity to see Christie at his best. Just as the chaotic manner with which former New York Governor David Patterson chose Kirsten Gillibrand to the Senate to replace Hillary Clinton in 2009 showed what a lousy executive he was, a sober and well-thought out selection process followed by a reasonable pick of a political ally will demonstrate Christie’s ability to lead.

Though liberals are claiming today that Lautenberg’s death creates a headache for Christie, that’s just spin. The potential gains for him far outweigh the possible losses. Barring his pick going completely off the rails in office, Christie’s choices are all good and the national focus on Trenton only enhances his national standing as one of his party’s leading figures. The odds are, he won’t hurt himself in any way and will help his party at home and in Washington.

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