Chris Christie’s twisty trek to 2016

    Updated at the bottom.

    Chris Christie is already on notice, from denizens of the right-wing echo chamber, that he’s gotta toe the line and fill Frank Lautenberg’s Senate seat with a conservative purist – because if he doesn’t, he can kiss his presidential prospects goodbye.

    The ink was still fresh on the Lautenberg death announcement yesterday when The Drudge Report emblazoned its home page with a pic of the Jersey governor and a headline that drew a line in the dust: “Whose Side Are You On?”

    Elsewhere, various conservatives told CNN that if Christie knows what’s good for him, he’ll fill the seat with a litmus-test right-winger until the next election; in the words of South Carolina activist Rich Bolen, “Christie burned a lot of bridges with conservatives and tea partiers before the last election cavorting with Obama in the Sandy aftermath…If Christie appoints a Northeast moderate placeholder, red-state America will be irrevocably opposed to him throughout the 2016 primary process.”

    Not that Christie could give a damn about what the doctrinaire conservatives are saying. His “cavorting” with Obama is about helping the distressed citizens of his state, as any storm-tossed governor would do; and, by the way, a “Northeast moderate” appointee would actually be a good fit for a Northeast moderate state that has long been inhospitable to right-wingers who try to run statewide (for instance, gubernatorial loser Brent Schundler in 2001 and senatorial loser Jeff Bell in 1978). As I mentioned here yesterday, New Jersey hasn’t elected a Senate Republican since 1972 – 40 years ago, folks – and that was Clifford Case, a classic Northeast moderate.

    But if Christie does aspire to run for president in 2016, his trek to the nomination would be twisty indeed – because conservatives like Bolen tend to dominate the early contests, particularly in Iowa and South Carolina. Those conservatives are upset that Christie keeps “cavorting” with The Other. Which is why David Axelrod, the longtime adviser to The Other, got it right yesterday when he tweeted: “Fascinating dilemma for Christie. Does he name interim who reflects his more moderate state, or feed Tea Party for ’16?”

    Actually, Christie’s conundrum is even more intricate than that. It’s basically a game of three-dimensional chess.

    Christie is up for re-election this November, and he’s expected to win easily. But he’d prefer to win overwhelmingly, by drawing a huge Democratic crossover vote – thus demonstrating to the GOP that, as a presidential candidate, he would have pulling power in the blue and purple states where the party badly needs to become more competitive. The problem is, he’d alienate a lot of potential Democratic votes this November if he were to fill Lautenberg’s seat with a right-winger who’s outside the Jersey mainstream, a right-winger who’d stand with Senate conservatives in opposition to immigration reform.

    If only his dilemma were that simple. Turns out, we don’t even even know how long his interim appointee will serve – because we don’t even know when the voters would get the chance to weigh in.

    Calendar chaos

    I mentioned here yesterday that a special Senate election would likely be on the ballot this November, along with Christie’s gubernatorial contest; I figured that was the deal, having just consulted state election law. Silly me – because, as it turns out, Jersey has two election laws, and each conflicts with the other. I won’t bore you with the details. The gist of the law I saw (which is the most recently enacted one) basically opens the door to a special election this November; the gist of the older law is that the special election would likely be held next November, on the day of the 2014 midterms.

    (The complications stem from the timing of Lautenberg’s death, vis a vis the various primary and election deadlines, but I promised not to get into the weeds of legalese.)

    Christie has the power to decide which way to go. And, for his own political purposes, he might be tempted to postpone the special election until 2014 – because if he schedules that contest for the same day as his ’13 reelection contest, the odds are strong that popular Newark mayor Cory Booker would be on the ballot at the Democratic senatorial nominee. And if Booker is on the ’13 ballot, Booker would likely draw a lot of Democratic voters who would otherwise stay home. And those Democratic voters, once they’re in the booth, might also pull the lever for Christie’s sacrificial Democratic opponent, Barbara Buono – thus imperiling Christie’s envisioned bipartisan landslide.

    Still with me? There’s more. If Christie opts to punt the special election into 2014 (citing the older election law), rest assured that Jersey Democrats will sue him in court (citing the newer election law). It’s in their political interest to have the election in 2013 – in the hopes of speedily restoring the Senate’s 55-45 Democratic seat advantage, and perhaps slashing into Christie’s gubernatorial victory margin.

    Conceivably, iconoclastic Christie could cross everyone up by simply naming Booker to the vacant seat – or maybe another Democrat. Rest assured, conservatives are already steamed about that scenario. Yesterday, right-wing mystery novelist Brad Thor mockingly tweeted: “What lucky Democrat will Democrat Chris Christie appoint to Sen. Frank Lautenberg’s seat?” Of course, if Christie were to take that road, the rabid right would probably demand to see his long-form birth certificate.

    Ah Jersey, land of conflicting election laws and pugilistic politics. Remember, this is the state where two Democratic senators, Frank “Swamp Dog” Lautenberg and Bob “The Torch” Torricelli, feuded so intensely that The Torch told the Swamp Dog that he was jonesing to remove the Swamp Dog’s testicles. So whatever Chris Christie decides to do next, I’m sure he can swing with the fallout.


    Update, 2:30…Christie has now spoken, and what a clever dude he is.

    If or when he appoints an interim senator, that person’s stint in D.C. will be very brief. Christie is calling for a special Senate election this year – on Oct. 16. He says that, as speedily as possible, he wants to give Jersey voters “a voice and a choice.”

    This way, he basically hands it to the voters to pick a Lautenberg successor who’s most in tune with the Jersey mainstream – as opposed to him naming a long-serving appointee who might please the GOP base but displease the Jersey mainstream. And by scheduling the Senate election for Oct. 16, he reserves the regular election day for himself. Let Cory Booker stoke extra Democratic senatorial turnout on Oct. 16; that way, Christie can more easily cruise to a landslide reelection in November.

    Jersey Democrats were hoping for November, so that Christie would be overshadowed. But all they’ve got now is a gripe about the extra costs (roughly $24 million) of an October contest – to which Christie offered this preemptive response: That tab “cannot be measured against the value of having an elected representative in the United States Senate when so many consequential issues are being debated and determined this year.”

    And expect the Republican right to gripe about those taxpayer costs as well. It’s starting already. Here’s the Drudge website’s headline: Christie to spend $24m in NJ tax money in special election to avoid Cory Booker.


    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1



    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal