June 3, 2013

Senator Frank Lautenberg, Democrat of New Jersey, died this morning at age 89. Brad Plumer has a nice post about his legislative accomplishments, and Steve Kornacki remembers his Senate comeback.

Naturally, however, everyone is interested in the electoral and policy implications,with some speculating that the Democrats will be hurt in the short term.

In fact, probably not much will change.

For now, Republican Governor Chris Christie will appoint an interim Senator, bringing the Democrats’ advantage in the Senate down to 54-46. Then a special election will probably be scheduled, although as Kornacki reports it’s not clear when, or even if, that election will take place. Either way, Lautenberg’s seat will be up eventually as scheduled in November 2014, although now instead of an open seat with Lautenberg retiring, it’s possible that either the appointed Senator or the winner of a special election could be running as an incumbent.

One key point: Boris Shor, the political scientist who specializes in the ideology of state legislators, estimates that the three Republican state pols who are getting early buzz for the appointment to Lautenberg’s seat would all likely be moderate conservatives in the Senate — think Susan Collins or former Senators Olympia Snowe and Scott Brown.

On legislation, switching from a mainstream liberal to a moderate conservative makes little difference. Anything that the House can pass and Barack Obama will sign is going to get through the Senate easily, with or without Lautenberg.

On nominations, however, Democrats now go from needing five Republican defections to needing six. But that still may be doable. If Shor is correct and one of these choices or a similar Senator is selected, then Democrats will simply gain a new target to add to such gettable targets as Lamar Alexander, Susan Collins, and Lisa Murkowski. On balance, then, unless Christie really appoints someone very conservative, it’s unlikely that nominations get significantly harder.

Losing Lautenberg’s vote does make it somewhat more difficult for Harry Reid to go nuclear in July. However, I’ve never thought it was likely that Reid would do it if there were more than one or two Democratic defections, anyway. If that’s right, then it doesn’t really matter if those defections would leave Democrats with 52 or 53 or 54 votes.

In the long run, too, it’s unlikely that Lautenberg’s death will really change much. Yes, Republicans may now have an incumbent to run in the next election, but the record shows that appointed Senators tend not to do especially well. As Sean Trende points out, New Jersey is a strong Democratic state but one that Republicans can win in, at least in gubernatorial elections. I think that sets the basic context for the eventual control of the Senate seat after 2014 to remain with Democrats, with whatever happens in between not really changing much.

To be sure: these are only reasonable expectations; surprises are certainly possible. But overall, Lautenberg’s death shouldn’t be expected to have a major effect on what happens in the Senate during the remainder of the 113th Congress or on the outcome of the 2014 election cycle.

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