Facing a weak gubernatorial opponent and sporting enviable approval ratings, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie looked like he was heading into his election year on cruise control. He's been seeking to blunt his hard-edged reputation with carefully crafted appearances with President Obama on hurricane recovery, and occasional jibes at conservative Republicans in Congress.
But with Sen. Frank Lautenberg's death on Monday, Christie now faces a difficult decision that could shape his future political trajectory. Does he solidify his bipartisan credentials by picking a caretaker Republican to fill the seat, probably giving Newark Mayor Cory Booker a glide path to the Senate? Or does he pick a major fight with Democrats, which could bolster any 2016 presidential aspirations but complicate his own reelection prospects?
Christie's calculus will be closely watched in the weeks ahead. His first big decision will be whether he wants to aggressively contest the seat and insert himself into messy Washington politics, or appoint a placeholder who would burnish his image and not jeopardize any well-earned political capital. Christie allies are concerned that if a special election is held to coincide with his gubernatorial campaign, his Democratic opponent, Barbara Buono, could benefit significantly. Assuming Booker is the Democratic nominee for the special election, he could help boost turnout among African-Americans and lower-intensity Democratic voters and make the governor's race interesting. Even with a comfortable lead in the polls, that's not a risk Christie would welcome.
"Cory Booker attracts the voters Barbara Buono was unable to. It creates an entirely different turnout dynamic," said one New Jersey Republican familiar with Christie's thinking.
It's unclear when or whether a special election would be held to fill Lautenberg's seat in the Senate. State law outlines a process under which Christie would be required to select a placeholder for Lautenberg's vacancy, and then be tasked with scheduling a special election to be held in 2013. But Republicans, both from Washington and in Christie's orbit, are arguing that the law leaves open a possibility the governor could delay the special election until November 2014. That would allow the pick to develop seniority, bank campaign money, and deny Democrats the ability to rally voters in the off-year governor's race. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that multiple party officials anticipate a court fight if Christie pushes the election back to 2014.
Either way, Christie's selection would give a strong signal for how aggressively he intends to contest the Senate race. If his appointee chose to run, the pick would be akin to Christie's gubernatorial running mate because in a 2013 special election, they'd be together on the same GOP ticket. Their success would be an important test of Christie's clout, and whether his popularity can translate to his allies. It would also be a major risk, given that it would take a near-perfect storm for a Republican to win in reliably Democratic New Jersey