In a state where political blood feuds have been a proud tradition, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) and Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg (D) went to extremes trying to live up to the legend: They hated each other and made it known.
Lautenberg’s death Monday may represent the veteran senator’s closing bid on the last laugh: The timing of his passing is likely to create as many headaches for Christie — a high-profile 2016 presidential hopeful — as it presents opportunities.
Lautenberg’s death means that Christie must now navigate, in a more conspicuous fashion, the tricky political currents at the confluence of his long-term national ambitions and his current bid for reelection in perpetually “blue” New Jersey.
If he selects an interim senator with moderate leanings who becomes the first Republican to win a New Jersey Senate race since 1972, Christie could boost his image with establishment Republicans who see his can-do style as the antidote to the party’s ills in recent presidential elections.
Yet such a pick could further alienate the GOP conservative base, which plays an outsize role in early presidential primary states. Those activists have not forgiven Christie for embracing President Obama in the final days of the 2012 campaign, when Obama toured the Hurricane Sandy-ravaged Jersey Shore. The two men trekked through the wreckage of the iconic boardwalks and roller coasters that provided the early inspiration for their mutual music hero, Bruce Springsteen.
For now, Christie has remained mum on his plans. Instead, he paid tribute Monday to the fighting spirit of the state’s longest-serving senator.
“It’s no mystery that Senator Lautenberg and I didn’t always agree. In fact, it probably is more honest to say we very often didn’t agree, and we had some pretty good fights,” Christie said. He praised Lautenberg “as an advocate for the causes that he believed in and as an adversary in the political world.”
Loved by Senate colleagues who admired his personal spirit — a World War II veteran who co-founded the payroll-services company Automatic Data Processing and championed progressive anti-smoking and environmental protection laws — Lautenberg’s popularity had slid in the past decade among Jersey insiders most concerned about their own local power. His age and declining health made Lautenberg less of a presence back home, and Newark Mayor Corey Booker (D) announced his intention to run for his Senate seat before Lautenberg announced, in February, that he would not seek reelection.
Battling pneumonia and the effects of chemotherapy treatments from a few years ago, Lautenberg missed so many Senate votes this year that Trenton and Washington were filled with rumors he would retire in the spring. He returned to the Capitol for just two key votes — one to support the gun-control law requiring universal background checks, an issue he has championed since the 1990s, and another to help push Obama’s pick to head the Environmental Protection Agency out of committee.
Confidants batted down retirement rumors with a swift fury, telling inquiring reporters that Lautenberg’s deep-seated hatred of Christie would make that impossible. Christie once called the 28-year senator an “embarrassment” and a “partisan hack.” Lautenberg called the popular governor “the king of liars.”
Lautenberg, some close to him whispered, would rather die in office than live to see Christie select his replacement.
Now, Lautenberg has done just that.
Lautenberg’s funeral is scheduled for Wednesday, and no announcements are expected before then. But the succession plan has become even more muddled by the state’s conflicting election laws.
One law calls for a special election by November, when Christie will be on the ballot against a little-known and underfunded Democratic state legislator. Another appears to give Christie the flexibility of appointing an interim senator until November 2014, when the usually scheduled election for a full six-year term is slated.
This adds another layer of intrigue to Christie’s maneuvering. Some Republicans believe that the best bet for winning the seat is to push for a 2013 election, allowing the interim senator he appoints to attach himself or herself to Christie’s coattails and slingshot to an upset victory over the Democratic nominee.
However, that would require another race in 2014 and, more importantly to the state’s intensely parochial politics, it would add a wild card to a governor’s race in which Christie has been way ahead by virtue of his handling of Sandy.
His continued work with Obama, including a high-profile visit by the president to the state’s boardwalks for the kickoff of tourist season on Memorial Day weekend, has only further agitated conservative activists who fervently cheered Christie’s anti-union speeches just a few years back.
Christie was not invited to speak this year at the Conservative Political Action Conference, a gathering of the movement’s most fervent activists that doubles as an annual cattle call for GOP presidential contenders.
These activists would prefer Christie to name a true conservative, such as Rep. Scott Garrett (R-N.J.), to the Lautenberg seat. But Garrett would stand little chance of being elected to a full term in a state where no Republican has received 50 percent of the vote since Thomas Kean Sr. won reelection as governor in 1985. (While Christie and Christine Todd Whitman won three governor’s races combined, neither hit 50 percent; the last Republican to reach that mark in any statewide race was George H.W. Bush in his 1988 presidential landslide.)
Christie is likely to focus on a few close GOP allies: state Sen. Joe Kyrillos, his best friend in the legislature, who lost a 2012 Senate bid; Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, a popular former federal prosecutor who supports abortion rights; or Thomas Kean Jr., a state senator and the son of the former governor.
Any of those choices would probably disappoint conservatives, but they would provide the least amount of turbulence to Christie’s fortunes.
One New Jersey Republican operative described the governor as being in a “do no harm” mode. Having a competitive Senate race alongside the governor’s race might upset that apple cart, particularly if African American voters in cities such as Camden and Newark turn out in higher than expected numbers to support Booker’s bid to become the first black statewide official in New Jersey’s history.
“Congressional seats are valued less than in other states. In New Jersey, the big stakes are in Trenton, so the death of Senator Lautenberg means more to people in D.C. than internally,” said Ross K. Baker, a leading political observer at Rutgers University, suggesting Christie might lean toward appointing someone to run in 2014 if his lawyers say it is permissible.