Christie’s First Test

by Daniel Foster
Whom he picks to replace Lautenberg will speak volumes.

The death, at age 89, of Democratic senator Frank Lautenberg has put a wrinkle in the reelection plans of New Jersey governor Chris Christie. The cantankerous Republican enjoys high approval ratings and a chasmic lead over Barbara Buono, a Democratic rival so weak that former governor Brendan Byrne, now the Garden State’s Democratic elder statesman, has hinted she should think about dropping out.

But the need to appoint an interim replacement for Lautenberg, and to schedule a special election to fill out his term through 2014, has created a pair of new challenges. First, does Christie hold the special election along with the rest of the local and statewide races (including his own) in November of 2013? This is the logical (and fiscally responsible) choice, but Christie’s candidate will almost certainly square off against Newark mayor Cory Booker, the dynamic Democrat who forewent challenging the governor to explore a Senate bid. Booker’s presence would drum up Democratic turnout (especially black turnout) and could make what appears set to be a runaway win for Christie a little more interesting.

Whom Christie selects to take Lautenberg’s seat in the interim will both affect and be affected by these considerations. Does he go with a placeholder with no intention to run to retain the seat? Does he pick a serious contender who can at least mount a credible challenge to Booker, and hope to boost that contender’s chances with his own coattails? Does he appoint a Democrat, with an eye on conceding the Senate race to boost his own bipartisan credentials for 2013 (and 2016)?

To political junkies, this is prime cud for the chew. So let’s do a bit of old-fashioned speculating, and take a look at a few possible picks and what each could/would mean this year and beyond.

The Insider Pick: Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno
Guadagno is actually New Jersey’s first lieutenant governor (who by law concurrently serves as state secretary of, well, state) and the first statewide officeholder elected as part of a gubernatorial “ticket.” Her appointment would thus be as close as Christie could get away with to appointing himself, and would put a close ally in the Senate. Like the governor, Guadagno is a former federal prosecutor with a reputation for taking on corruption in both parties. She also served as the first female sheriff of Monmouth County. Though she has limited legislative experience, my guess is she’d be a typically moderate northeastern GOPer with a law-and-order streak. What would her appointment signal? Depends. If Guadagno doesn’t have grander political ambitions, she’d be the perfect interim pick, and even a brief tour of the Senate would set her up for a comfortable transition to the private sector. It could also add to a résumé for future runs. Fun fact: Guadagno was born in Waterloo, Iowa.

The Party Pick: Tom Kean Jr.
Tom Kean Jr. is the heir-apparent-at-large in New Jersey Republican politics. Son of the former governor and 9/11 Commission co-chair, Kean has elite credentials, including degrees from Dartmouth and Tufts (at the latter of which he is finishing a doctorate in international relations), and he is the Republican leader in the state senate. His appointment would signal Christie’s desire, and Kean’s, to contest the Senate race. Indeed, Kean ran a tight race against Senator Bob Menendez in 2006, and with Christie’s aggressive backing and assumed coattails he could make it interesting at the polls.

The Statesman Pick: Tom Kean Sr.
See above. Kean was governor from 1982 to 1990 and is still widely respected and up for public service. But at 78, his appointment would pretty much send the opposite signal of his son’s. He’d be an old pro keeping the seat warm.

The utility Pick: Joe Kyrillos
A 25-year vet of the New Jersey legislature, Kyrillos, too, squared off against Menendez, though he fared worse than Kean. Kyrillos is a bit more conservative than the average New Jersey Republican, with a strong pro-growth and anti-tax record. He is also a key Christie ally, chairing the governor’s 2009 campaign and serving as one of his chief proxies in the state house. His appointment would thus split the difference between the “placeholder” and “contender” paths — a Christie ally rewarded for his yeoman 2012 race, who could also give you a respectable, veteran presence in a 2013 or 2014 special.

The Wildcard Pick: Cory Booker
Christie could broaden his appeal among state (and national) Democrats by throwing a curve and appointing Cory Booker, who was already the favorite to take the seat in 2014. As it is, Christie has effectively killed Booker with kindness, striking up a cozy relationship with the Newark mayor and making it difficult for Booker to criticize him. Sending Booker to the Senate would make it more difficult still, especially in 2016, by which time Booker could well be a national figure. Of course, Booker is just the juiciest of the Democrats Christie could pick. Appointing any Democrat would have a similar effect (and you’d better believe it would tick off Republicans).

The Machiavellian Pick: Frank Pallone 
This will almost certainly not happen, but appointing the Democratic congressman would be a Godfather-esque divide-and-conquer move by Christie. Pallone is a big cog in the state’s Democratic machine, and party insiders prefer him to the free-agent Booker, who hasn’t paid them the requisite tribute. Pallone has a war chest, and will mount a real primary threat to Booker. Imagine if he did so as an incumbent? Things might get ugly for the Democrats.

My Pick: Bruce Harris 
If you want my two cents (and if you’ve read this far, I assume you do), a little-known mayor from Morris County is the solution to all of Christie’s problems. Bruce Harris, former councilman and current mayor of tony Chatham, N.J., is a smart (MBA/JD) and solid GOP man and a Christie ally. He’s also black. And openly gay. Appointing someone with Harris’s background would let Christie signal his broad appeal while at the same time mollifying state and national Republicans by sending a guy to Washington with the right letter next to his last name. The only downside to Harris is a lack of legislative experience, but the Christie shop could sell it as sending a small-town citizen-mayor to bring common sense to Washington. Christie wanted Harris for a court spot but was stymied by a partisan confirmation vote. The United States Senate would be a nice consolation prize.

— Daniel Foster is NRO’s news editor.

Did you like this?