Governor Chris Christie refused to rule out the possibility that he could replace New Jersey’s U.S. senator Bob Menendez if the Democratic lawmaker is convicted on fraud and bribery charges in a trial that begins this week. “I don’t give Shermanesque statements on anything,” Christie told an interviewer for MSNBC’s Morning Joe program. “Listen, we’ll see what happens in this trial. We don’t know if there’s even going to be a vacancy and if there is, whether I’ll still be governor to replace it. What I’ll guarantee the people of New Jersey is . . . I’ll pick the person I think is best to represent New Jersey’s interests in the U.S. Senate.”
The reason Christie’s refusal to be pinned down is so important is that the Senate is now almost evenly divided, and with partisanship running high Republicans are finding it hard to secure enough of their 52 votes to pass major legislation, especially with the illness of Senator John McCain. Even one more Republican in the Senate could have a major impact on whether major tax reform passes or any possible Supreme Court nominee can be confirmed. If Senator Menendez is convicted and leaves office before January 16 of next year, Christie as outgoing governor has the right to appoint a successor for the remaining year of Menendez’s term. After that date, the governor replacing the term-limited Christie would make any appointment.
Christie could appoint anyone, but in reality he couldn’t appoint himself. Should he want the seat, he would first resign as governor and then his lieutenant governor would make the appointment. Such a maneuver has happened five times since the 1960s, but all five governors-turned-senators lost their next election.
So with public resentment of “self-appointed” senators usually high and Christie’s approval ratings quite low, why would Christie even consider such a move? One reason is that the GOP is unlikely to hold the Senate seat should it become vacant. New Jersey has gone Democratic for president in every election since 1988 and hasn’t elected a Republican to the Senate since 1972. Christie would probably be the strongest candidate the GOP could put up in what is shaping up to be a tough year for the party.
A second reason is that even if Christie chose not to seek election to a full six-year term in November 2018, he could still shake up the Senate in dramatic ways. His vote could be crucial in passing all kinds of legislation. His national stature would guarantee he would be a prominent voice pushing President Trump’s agenda. A solid year swinging the bat for Trump in the Senate could well repair his frayed relations with the White House and land him a major appointment after he left the Senate.
Of course, Christie could go a more conventional route and pick someone like former representative Michael Ferguson or biotech executive John Crowley, both of whom would have statewide appeal. It’s also not clear that Christie will have the chance to make any appointment.
Menendez’s trial is expected to drag on into October or November. Should he be convicted, Democrats will urge him to stay in office until his appeals are exhausted. The last New Jersey senator to be convicted was Harrison Williams in 1981. He didn’t resign until his efforts to overturn his conviction were exhausted.
Should Menendez refuse to resign, Republicans would have to move to expel the convicted senator. That would take a two-thirds vote, meaning that about a quarter of Senate Democrats would have to go along. Although difficult, that could happen after the seamy story of Menendez’s actions spills out in the trial.
Prosecutors have accused Menendez of accepting a series of gifts from Salomon Melgen, a Florida eye doctor who has been convicted of Medicare-reimbursement fraud. It is alleged that Menendez accepted numerous flights on a private jet, vacations in Paris and the Caribbean, and nearly $800,000 in campaign contributions from Melgen in exchange for intervening to help Melgen keep $9 million in ill-gotten Medicare payments, arranging for U.S. visas for Melgen’s foreign girlfriends, and applying pressure on the Dominican Republic over a port-security contract Melgen owned. Menendez claims the two men have known each other for over 20 years and often exchanged gifts.
Christie could shake up the Senate in dramatic ways.
Even though convictions of a public official for bribery have to involve proof that any gifts led to official action by the public official, the evidence against Menendez is unusually comprehensive and sordid. Prosecutors will cite e-mail exchanges and even sworn testimony from the pilots who ferried Menendez to his lavish vacations to prove their argument that Menendez “paid” for the allegedly illicit gifts using the “currency of his Senate office.”
Should Menendez be convicted and the appointment to replace him fall to Christie, he may well be tempted to take the seat. After all, Christie shot to public notice as an aggressive U.S. attorney who put dozens of local politicians behind bars before running for governor on an anti-corruption platform. New Jersey voters are understandably a cynical lot when it comes to their elected officials, so should Christie become their senator he might not be in such bad shape. Christie may be unpopular, but, when sized up against the state’s other politicians, he might look virtuous in comparison.