For those who have not been paying attention, Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) passed away Monday due to complications from pneumonia. At 89, he was the oldest senator in congress, and the longest-serving senator in New Jersey history.
The loss of a reliable Democrat vote in the Senate would be a tremendous blow to the already fractured Congress. On more than one occasion, Lautenberg, who missed several sessions due to health problems, had to be brought in by wheelchair just so Majority Leader Harry Reid could make quorum or break a filibuster.
This created an opportunity for Republicans, as New Jersey's Governor Chris Christie was put into a situation where he could send a Republican senator from New Jersey to Congress for the first time in over four decades.
However, that is not to be.
New Jersey has conflicting election laws, making it very unclear what is the "correct" course of action for Christie to take. Had the seat been vacated a few weeks earlier, Christie would have been compelled by law to hold special elections, a few weeks later and the law would have granted Christie the power to simply appoint a new senator to serve out the remainder of the term, unless he decided otherwise.
Being a gray area, Christie had the choice of doing either, and invariably being sued by whichever party didn't like the outcome. Holding special elections would have been the preferred method by Democrats, who outnumber Republican voters in New Jersey by well over 700,000. However, it being so close to the gubernatorial election, Christie would run the risk of having his own election overshadowed by the Senate race, in which national celebrity Cory Booker, the current two-term mayor of Newark, New Jersey, would no doubt be taking part.
Christie decided to try and have it both ways. While holding the special elections on the same day as the normal elections, November 5, would make the most sense financially, Christie can set the date for them as early as October, with primaries being held in August.
Chris Christie has done just that. He opted to go the more morally correct, and more bipartisan route of calling for special elections. However, he has also chosen to hold the special elections in October, despite the cost, ensuring that the gubernatorial race would headline the ballot this November.
Christie was in a tough spot, no matter which course of action he chose, he took on a substantial risk. If he had sided with Republican wishes, he opened himself up to the wrath of Democrats in the state (not to mention the people of New Jersey who put a Democrat there in the first place), and had he called for special elections, and squandered an opportunity to put a Republican in the Senate for a year and a half, he risked backlash from his own party. By having a separate election for the Senate, he faces backlash from anyone who is anti-Christie, by spending money "unnecessarily" on a special election.
Christie chose the extra expense anyway. He framed the decision as an attempt to give New Jersey a new Senator, of their choosing, as quickly as possible. He also made sure to note that primaries would be held, to ensure that the people, and not party leaders behind closed doors, got to choose the candidates.
Democrats will no doubt use the added expense of a separate election to paint Christie as a hypocrite whose fiscal responsibility ends when it comes to personal ambition, but Christie has likely calculated, correctly, that no matter what he did, the Democrats wouldn't be happy with anything short of directly appointing Cory Booker.
The next step of the process is nominating an interim senator to serve until the special elections.
Here is another minefield that Christie must step through carefully. It is almost certain that he will not appoint a Democrat to the position. However, whether he tries to give an aspiring Republican a slight boost by putting them in the position early, or whether he tries to maintain the neutral position he has already taken by appointing a former, moderate civil servant who has no ambitions of running for the seat, remains to be seen.
If he chooses the neutral route, the best candidate for the job is former New Jersey Governor Tom Kean, Sr. Kean is one of New Jersey's most popular governors ever and maintains that status even after leaving office in 1990. Between 1990 and 2005 Kean was president of New Jersey's Drew University, and in 2004 Kean gained some renewed national attention as chairman of the 9/11 Commission.
If he does not, and instead tries to give a boost to an aspiring Republican, his best bet is the popular, female, and pro-choice Lt. Governor Kim Guadagno, one of the few Republicans in New Jersey who has the political positions and name recognition required to go against Cory Booker in the special election.
Choosing anyone but Guadagno is a wasted opportunity for the Republicans, and is a potential loss for New Jersey, as she would make an excellent Senator. However, if Christie wants to continue taking the moderate high road and maintain favor among both parties and everyone in between, appointing Gov. Kean is his best bet.