The death of Senator Frank Lautenberg gives New Jersey governor Chris Christie the chance to appoint a new Republican senator and shift the balance of power in the U.S. Senate — majority leader Harry Reid may now be less likely to try to alter Senate rules in order to remove the 60-vote threshold for cutting off debate.
Democrats say Christie faces an excruiating choice on whom he appoints. As David Axelroad, the strategist behind President Obama’s 2008 and 2012 victories put it: “Fascinating dilemma for Christie. Does he name interim who reflects his more moderate state, or feed Tea Party for ’16?” They also assert that conflicts in state law may force Christie to hold a special election for the seat as early as November of this year, when he will also be on the ballot for a second term.
Both assertions are way overblown. First, the state legislature’s Office of Legislative Services makes it quite clear that Christie’s gubernatorial powers allow him to set the time and day of the election. Most likely it would be held in November 2014, and the winner would then serve the remaining two months of Lautenberg’s term, through January 2015. A separate election would determine who would serve the next full six-year Senate term.
As for Christie’s being under pressure to appoint a hard-shell conservative to the seat, every New Jersey conservative I spoke with is realistic. “As much as I’d like to see a Steve Forbes or Bret Schundler get the appointment, I realize Christie’s not going there,” one told me. “I think we can get someone who is solid on the key issues and also can win in the Northeast.” He points out that, of the 22 Senators from the region, the GOP currently has only three – Kelly Ayotte from New Hampshire, Susan Collins from Maine, and Pat Toomey from Pennsylvania.
Several names have been floated as Christie appointees, but all carry some baggage.
State senator Joe Kyrillos is a close Christie ally, but just last November he lost a U.S. Senate race to the ethically challenged incumbent Bob Menendez by 20 points.
Tom Kean Jr. is the state senate’s minority leader. As the son of former governor Tom Kean, he has a golden name in state politics. But he has clashed with Christie in the past and also lost a Senate race as the GOP nominee back in 2006.
Lieutenant governor Kim Guadagno was Christie’s hand-picked choice to be his running mate in 2009. A former sheriff, she has performed ably in the No. 2 slot. But her real ambition may be to run for governor, a very powerful postion in New Jersey, and should he win this November Christie is prevented from running again by term limits in 2017.
John Crowley, a biotech executive, would be a bold, out-of-the-box candidate. In the 1990s he left his job as a senior executive at Bristol-Myers Squibb to start his own biomedical company in the search for a medical treatment for two of his children who have a rare neuromuscular disorder. He sold his startup company in 2001 for $130 milllion, and the new company did indeed develop a treatment for the affliction plaguing his children. His story inspired a major motion picture in 2010 that starred Harrison Ford — it’s political gold. Crowley almost ran for the Senate against Lautenberg in 2008, but then decided his obligations with his company and family made a race too difficult. Those concerns are now greatly diminished and, if appointed, he would be able to self-finance much of a race in New Jersey, which is a hugely expensive media state since any candidate has to buy in both the New York and Philadelphia markets.
Whomever he chooses to replace Lautenberg, look for Christie to act fairly quickly. New Jersey is a blue state and any Republican who becomes its new senator will have to hit the ground running if they are to have a chance to win a full term in 2014.