Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), the last World War II veteran serving in the Senate, died Monday morning at age 89. He announced earlier this year that he would not run for reelection in 2014, and under New Jersey law Gov. Chris Christie will appoint a replacement to fill his seat until the 2014 election. Christie’s choice will not only shape the 2014 senatorial election, but also impact Christie's chances in the 2016 presidential election.
Although it is too early to say with any confidence who Gov. Christie could be looking to, his choice for interim senator will have an immediate effect on pending legislation, particularly with regards to immigration. Assuming he chooses a Republican, the GOP will have a clear advantage as it gains a Democratic Senate seat. It remains to be seen whether the appointee will join with the GOP faction that is pushing for comprehensive reform, which could get more Republicans on board, or joint the GOP coalition opposed to immigration reform.
The governor has a history of making waves with appointments, especially in the judiciary where he has appointed members of the LGBT and Muslim communities. If New Jersey's governor were a Democrat, the obvious choice for Senate would be Newark Mayor Cory Booker, but looking towards 2016 Christie is expected to appoint a Republican. However, there is no obvious Republican choice.
Looking towards 2014, Cory Booker is the clear front-runner and only declared candidate on the Democratic side. Polling also shows him winning in head-to-head match-ups against potential Republican candidates Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno and TV host Geraldo Rivera. If either Guadagno or Rivera were to be given the spot, it would give the GOP an important leg up against Booker.
Gov. Christie's pick will provide hints as to his political future. He could chose a pragmatic, no-BS politician in the style of Christie himself, chose a conservative to bolster his credentials for the primary, or chose a moderate, which would help with fundraising efforts for his gubernatorial campaign. Most commentators believe Christie is looking towards a potential 2016 presidential run, and so predict that in order to contend in a national Republican primary he will bolster his conservative credentials to avoid the label of RINO (Republican in name only) that has been attributed to Republicans such as John McCain (R-Ariz.).
Currently, Christie has uniquely strong support across the political spectrum. Forty percent of Democrats, 41% of Republicans, and 45% of independents view him favorably, all but assuring his reelection as governor this year. If Christie were to run for president in 2016, Public Policy Polling found that he was the only Republican who could come close to beating Hillary Clinton in a hypothetical 2016 matchup, trailing her by only three points.
Whoever Chris Christie chooses to fill Lautenberg’s seat, it will have serious ramifications at the legislative, gubernatorial, and presidential levels.