Newark Mayor Cory Booker (D), to no one’s surprise, announced Thursday that he will be looking for a 2014 Senate run (when incumbent Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D) is expected to retire), not a face-off against Gov. Chris Christie (R), who will be seeking reelection next year.
Given Booker’s popularity and the GOP’s dismal record in winning Senate seats in the Garden State, a 2014 bid for the Senate is a no-brainer. It is not without risk — a scandal might pop up, another figure might emerge — but it is certainly a safer bet than going up against Christie and his sky-high approval ratings.
This obviously is good news for Christie as well. The absence of a bruising reelection fight, a romp in November 2013, and time to bond with donors and GOP activists are just what a potential presidential candidate would want. Without the pressure of a tightly contested reelection fight, Christie can continue to broaden his foreign policy knowledge (he started extremely well in this regard last year with a speech and trip to Israel), take some overseas trips and demonstrate some proficiency with national security (for which he has a head start in prosecuting terrorists as a former U.S. attorney). He can also begin building on his relationships with other Republicans by raising money and campaigning for them.
There are a couple of challenges beyond boosting foreign policy know-how for Christie as he navigates through a reelection campaign and keeps his options open for 2016.
First, however silly, some in the conservative base (who will turn out in strong numbers) are still miffed about his nice words for President Obama in the midst of the Hurricane Sandy disaster. He shouldn’t apologize or frankly address it (other than with humor — “If you think I am the one who caused Mitt Romney’s loss, let’s sit down and talk . . . .”). However, he should begin to articulate the case that rather than a squishy blue-state governor (umm, like the last guy) Christie has conservative bona fides, has always been pro-life and has a track record of cutting spending and holding the line on taxes. The tricky part is not to open himself up to criticism later by campaigning for governor like a moderate and talking conservative talk with the GOP. (Christie, by the way, is pretty good at explaining who he is in ways that resonate with multiple groups.)
Second, like every governor, he is going to have to deal with the gun issue. There will be pressure on him and other states to pass a raft of new legislation restricting guns and ammunition. He will need to maintain his credibility with suburban and urban New Jersey voters while not getting himself crosswise with the GOP base. Stepped-up enforcement of existing laws and additional attention to mental health are sure bets for him.
He remains an extremely popular figure in the GOP (outside the far right wing) and by 2016 will have seven years of executive experience in one of the most heavily populated, liberal states. If he wins big (as expected), avoids scandal (not easy to do in New Jersey) and continues to carve out his niche as a can-do conservative executive who can work with the other side, he will be near the top if not at the top of the early front runners in 2016. That front-runner status brings added scrutiny with it, but that, too, is good preparation for what may be his next job after the governorship.