The passing of five-term Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D) of New Jersey marks the end of an era. He was the oldest member of the Senate, its last World War II veteran, and a beloved figure among New Jersey Democrats.
It also deals a potential political blow to President Obama. Under New Jersey law, the governor appoints a replacement to fill a Senate vacancy until the next general election. That means Gov. Chris Christie – a Republican – has a juicy opportunity to turn a Democratic seat Republican during a crucial legislative period. Immigration reform is on the line this summer. The Democrats would still control the Senate, though by a narrower margin, 54 to 46.
It’s just one seat, but in this hyperpartisan time on Capitol Hill, every vote counts. These days, for just about anything to make it through the Senate, 60 votes are needed to overcome a filibuster. If Senator Lautenberg is replaced by a Republican, then the Democrats will need to find six Republicans to get to 60 instead of five, and that’s after getting every Democrat on board (not always easy).
But wait, this is Governor Christie we’re talking about – he of the “bromance” with President Obama that started during superstorm Sandy last fall and resumed last week with the president’s trip to the Jersey shore. New Jersey is a Democratic-leaning state, and Lautenberg was a true-blue Democrat. Might Christie decide to go with his state’s proclivities and put a Democrat in there, maybe his friend Newark Mayor Cory Booker?
Lautenberg was already retiring at the end of next year, and Mayor Booker was widely assumed to be running, and expected to win.
But there’s an excellent reason for Christie not to go in that direction: He’s already popular with Democrats in the state, and is expected to win a second term as governor by a wide margin. The latest polls show him up by more than 30 points. So he doesn't need to do more to woo Democrats.
It’s the Republican presidential primaries in 2016 that could make a Democratic appointment unwise. If Christie decides to run, he will have some making up to do with conservative voters, especially in the early primary and caucus states (see bromance, Obama). Precisely because he has a good relationship with the president, he probably can’t do him any favors by naming a Democrat to Lautenberg’s seat. And so we’re guessing that he chooses a Republican.
The Washington Post’s The Fix blog names a few Republican possibilities: state Sen. Tom Kean Jr., the GOP’s 2006 Senate nominee; Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno; and Joe Kyrillos, a Christie ally who was the Republican Senate nominee in 2012.