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Senate Choice Could Help Christie Mend GOP Ties

Senate Choice Could Help Christie Mend GOP Ties

By Scott Conroy - June 4, 2013

Until now, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's political roadmap was relatively simple: coast to an easy re-election victory in November, then use the resulting capital to strengthen his second-term clout in the state and bolster his bona fides as a Republican who can win in a blue landscape. The latter, of course, would carry weight as he considers a 2016 presidential bid.

But with the death of Democratic Sen. Frank Lautenberg, Christie’s calculus has suddenly become far more complicated. Now he will be tasked with appointing an interim replacement to succeed the longest-serving senator in New Jersey’s history, while facing down the prospect of a suddenly mobilized Democratic electorate that could jeopardize his hopes of a big victory later this year.

Within hours of learning that Lautenberg had passed away on Monday morning, Christie broke from his prepared remarks at a conference to eulogize the man who was the last-serving World War II veteran in the Senate. He did not, however, indicate how he would resolve apparently conflicting state statutes, which have generated confusion about whether a special election will be called this November to fill out Lautenberg’s term, which was set to expire in January 2015.

But whether the next elected New Jersey senator is voted into office this November or a year later, Christie’s choice of an interim replacement will carry profound implications not only for his state -- which has not elected a Republican to the Senate in over 40 years -- but for his own political future.

Despite his well-reported problems with national Republicans, few observers in New Jersey doubt that Christie’s White House ambitions remain intact and that he is looking for opportunities to repair relationships within the GOP that were frayed after his post-Hurricane Sandy (and pre-election) embrace of President Obama.

By appointing a Republican capable of winning a full term in 2014, Christie could go a long way toward mending fences as he moves into the next stage of his career.

“It would be an enormous boost to Christie’s reputation if he names someone who went on to become an elected senator,” said New Jersey political analyst Carl Golden. “For Republicans, it would be, ‘This guy’s a political genius. He picked the right guy.’ At its core, it comes down to who can win in 2014.”

But as was the case when interim-appointment scenarios arose recently for the governors of Massachusetts and South Carolina, Christie will have to decide whether to select someone who wants to remain in Washington for a long time or name a “caretaker” who would vow not to seek a full term.

The likeliest options in the latter scenario would be Bill Palatucci -- a top Christie adviser, whom a former aide suggested to RCP would receive a serious look from the governor -- and former Gov. Thomas Kean.

But conversations with several New Jersey political watchers on Monday revealed a consensus that Christie is more apt to choose someone who could contend with Newark Mayor Cory Booker -- considered the likeliest Democratic Senate nominee -- in either a special election this fall or in 2014.

Several ambitious New Jersey Republicans reportedly have already been quietly positioning themselves to be considered for that role, and two well-known names have emerged as the most obvious possibilities.

The first is state Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr., the son of the former governor (who was a Christie mentor). Kean Jr. ran unsuccessfully against Sen. Bob Menendez in 2006, earning plaudits from fellow Republicans for mounting a strong campaign despite going down in defeat in a national Democratic landslide.

The other oft-mentioned name is state Sen. Joe Kyrillos, whom Menendez defeated more soundly in 2012. Kyrillos maintains a close relationship with Christie and remains a leading voice among New Jersey Republicans.

While Christie’s longstanding efforts to reach across the aisle have led some to wonder whether he might appoint a Democrat to succeed Lautenberg -- perhaps even Booker himself -- several well-connected sources in the state agree that this scenario is extremely unlikely.

“You always get that kind of talk, but it’s just the case that it’s really not how it works,” said David Redlawsk, director of the Rutgers-Eagleton poll.

If Christie decides to make a high-risk pick that could earn the approval of national Republicans who have turned on him recently, he could turn to someone from the Tea Party wing of the GOP.

The likeliest person to fill that role would be state Sen. Mike Doherty, an outspoken social and economic conservative who endorsed Ron Paul in both of his presidential campaigns and has a strong following in the Republican base.

But in an interview with RCP on Monday, Doherty all but dismissed the possibility that Christie would heave a long pass in his direction and potentially jeopardize his gubernatorial re-election hopes.

“Gov. Christie is a very smart politician -- he’s going to want someone who’s a solid wing man, who’s going to enhance his ability to be re-elected,” Doherty said. “I come from a slightly different wing of the Republican Party -- the more conservative, libertarian wing. So I think he’s got a lot better choices that aren’t going to open up opportunities for Democrats to bring up all the conservative issues. I’m just being real with you.”

Doherty offered state Attorney General Jeff Chiesa, who previously served as head of Christie’s gubernatorial transition team and later his chief counsel, as a strong possibility, citing Chiesa’s close ties to the governor and potential to be viable against Booker. (Democratic Rep. Frank Pallone has been expected to challenge Booker in the Democratic Senate primary, but most New Jersey Republicans believe that the Newark mayor is likely to emerge as the nominee.)

Christie would much prefer not to have to run in an election that also features the popular and well-funded Booker on the ballot, leading analysts to wonder whether he will try to avoid calling a special Senate election this year. But a reading of the state code by RCP’s Sean Trende suggests that a 2013 contest is the likeliest outcome.

The heavy Democratic turnout that Booker would likely bring on Election Day this fall may be a key factor in Christie’s efforts to balance his 2016 ambitions with securing his re-election as governor.

“If Booker’s running [for Senate] in November, which would be a good move for the Democrats, suddenly Gov. Christie’s 30-point lead may be a little closer in a race that brings out all of the supporters of Cory Booker,” Doherty said. “It really has thrown a monkey wrench into the [Christie] re-election landslide talk.”

While the considerations and uncertainties in appointing a successor to Lautenberg are numerous and far-reaching, at least one thing already appears certain: New Jersey now will be at the forefront of the national political conversation later this year. 

Scott Conroy is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at sconroy@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @RealClearScott.

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