The death of Senator Frank Lautenberg, a Democrat from New Jersey, does not usually present much dilemma for a state governor who almost always is expected to appoint a replacement until the next election. State laws vary, sometimes the appointment is to fill out the remainder of the deceased senator’s term, sometimes until the next general election, and sometimes through a special election usually determined by the governor or the legislature. Governors are expected to name a replacement from their own party, and not from the deceased’s party if it is not specifically prohibited.
Most governors do not appoint themselves to the post because, although they can, voters usually react negatively, and subsequently vote them out. (A classic example occurred in 1976 when a very popular Minnesota governor, Wendell Anderson, appointed himself, and subsequently lost election to the post in 1978 by a wide margin.)
Earlier this year, when another senior Democrat, Daniel Inoye of Hawaii, died, Democratic Governor Neil Abercrombie surprised state politicos when he appointed his Lt. Governor Brian Schatz over Congesswoman Colleen Hanabusa (who had been Inoye’s stated choice). As a result, Hanabusa is running against Schatz in next year’s Democratic primary. Interestingly, Hawaii law states that the governor shall appoint someone from the deceased’s party (from a list of three submitted to the governor from that party), and that the appointment shall last until the next general election.
New Jersey law is more ambiguous about how long a gubernatorial appointee is to serve. Governor Chris Christie is a Republican in a traditionally Democratic state. If Christie were not so nationally prominent, and a likely 2016 presidential contender, common political sense would be for him to appoint a Republican to serve until Senator Lautenberg’s term was set to expire in 2015 (so as to have time to build his or her standing with state voters for the 2014 election.)
But New Jersey is unusual since it holds its gubernatorial elections in an in-between year (the next one is, in fact, this year), and Mr. Christie understandably wishes to win his re-election by as wide a margin as possible. If he opted for the special senate election this year, he risks having his efforts overshadowed by a popular Democratic senate candidate (perhaps Mayor Cory Booker of Newark). No one suggests the colorful incumbent governor would lose this year (he leads all polls by a wide margin), but a less-than-a-landslide result might hurt any 2016 presidential ambitions.) Mayor Booker on the ticket would likely bring out lots of Democratic voters who otherwise might not vote.
On the other hand, if Christie opted for a 2014 senate contest, he is open to the charge that he is thwarting New Jersey’s previous preference for a Democrat in that office. This normally is not a serious consideration, and most governors routinely appoint a temporary replacement from their own party, regardless of the party of the person who has vacated the position by death or resignation (an exception is the law in Hawaii cited above).
Governor Christie has already chosen to go for the 2013 option, citing the need for New Jersey voters to have a new senator of their choice as soon as possible, but he has added a twist to the scenario. Using his powers as governor, he has set the senate primary for August and the general election for mid-October, even though there is a general election already scheduled for a few weeks later in November (an election in which Christie is running for re-election).
Governor Christie might have scheduled the general election the same day as the already-scheduled election, and saved taxpayers several millions of dollars. The problem with that otherwise common sense plan is that New Jersey law requires the governor to set the primary date and special election date a certain number of days after he officially announces the special election. (This has not been widely included in reports of this story so far.) In order to hold the special senate election on the same day as the 2013 general election, as I understand it, Governor Christie would have been forced to delay announcement of his decision for several weeks.
I think such a delay, given the news media badgering, would have been politically unwise, especially as the governor was embarking on his own re-election campaign at this time.
As others have pointed out, had Senator Lautenberg died 30 days earlier or 30 days later, the New Jersey law would have been much less ambiguous. In any event, the final decision, everyone agrees, was up to the governor.
Was the decision political? Of course it was. Every decision by elected folks always has political implications. Was it self-serving? Yes. I don’t know any politician at any level of government who faces a political decision, and does not try to maximize its political consequences within reason. Was it the smartest or best decision? We don’t know the answer to that question yet.
Mr. Christie has to make a caretaker appointment for the senate seat who will serve until the special election (about 5 months). On the Democratic side, the special election presents unanticipated problems for Mr. Booker (who had been expected to win the Democratic nomination in 2014). He will now probably face a heated primary race with one or two Democratic congressmen, Frank Pallone and Rush Holt Jr.. Pallone and Holt now do not risk their house seats (as they would have had they run in a 2014 primary). Whomever the Democratic nominee will be, he or she will probably win the seat, but the Democratic campaign will have to spend all its efforts in getting out the Democratic vote in October. With Christie leading by such a wide margin, it might be problematic for Democratic leaders to turn out a strong vote again a few weeks later.
The bottom line is that the senate vacancy at this time has presented Chris Christie with some difficult choices. He has appeared to make the choices that makes him the most comfortable in a highly charged political and media environment.
The key to answering the question about whether the course he has chosen is politically smart or not will be answered by the voters of New Jersey. Considering his remarkable success with these voters so far, and his unique skills in presenting himself to them, it might be too soon to judge his actions as a mistake.
Governor Christie has now chosen his long-time friend and associate, New Jersey Attorney General Jeffrey Chiesa to serve as the interim U.S. senator taking the place of the late Frank Lautenberg until mid-October, 2013 when a new senator will be elected in a special election. Mr. Chiesa is a Republican who describes himself as a conservative. He announced he would not be running in the special election.
Congressman Rush Holt Jr., a Democrat, has now announced his candidacy for the special election. Congressman Frank Pallone and Newark Mayor Cory Booker are also expected to imminently announce their candidacies. Monday, June10 is the filing deadline for the special election. So far, no big GOP names have announced they will run. Mayor Booker is the favorite, but Mr. Holt and Mr. Pallone, as sitting congressmen, are serious candidates. New Jersey is a political mosh pit, and the primary is likely to be expensive and bruising. The Democratic primary winner is very likely to win the special election in this blue state.
Although Governor Christie is being criticized for the timing of the special election by both New Jersey Democrats and national Republicans, it is becoming clearer that, while he might have opted for a 2014 special election, such a decision would have been challenged by the Democrats in court, and they very likely would have won that challenge since the state supreme court is dominated by liberal Democrats. New Jersey law currently also prohibits a 2013 special senate election in November when the general election is already scheduled to take place. Some New Jersey Democrats are planning to introduce legislation to require the 2013 special election in November, but while the legislature is controlled by Democrats, the governor could veto the bill. He has already labeled such a move as “politically motivated.”
As for his prospects in 2016, any judgment about how he might fare then is quite premature. He has larger problems and opportunities ahead than how he handles a U.S. senate vacancy now.
Copyright (c) 2013 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.