In filling a vacant Senate seat, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie faces a significant choice fraught with political implications for his re-election campaign and, perhaps, a future presidential run. Democratic Sen. Frank Lautenberg’s death Monday presents the state’s popular Republican governor with a series of decisions that carry consequences beyond who will serve as New Jersey’s next U.S. senator. While Republicans and Democrats alike will be watching Christie’s next moves closely, there’s no telling what the governor _ who has staked out a reputation for going his own way _ will do. “I give him praise on a life well-lived,” Christie said of the Democratic senator with whom he frequently tangled. The governor made the comment during an appearance at a women’s conference and then canceled the rest of his public schedule Monday, clearly mindful of the high stakes involved in choosing Lautenberg’s successor.
Christie has wide latitude to choose Lautenberg’s successor but it would be unusual for him to select a Democrat. Four states require the governor to choose a member of the outgoing senator’s political party but New Jersey is not among them. With Lautenberg’s death, the Senate now has 52 Democrats, 45 Republicans and two independents who often side with the Democrats.
For Christie, who has enjoyed strong approval ratings, picking the wrong successor might reflect poorly on him as he looks to win by a large margin against Democratic state Sen. Barbara Buono, who is considered an underdog against the well-known governor. Choosing a conservative might help him with national Republicans but could undercut his moderate bona fides, which have helped him connect with independents and Democrats in his state.
In the longer term, the wrong person could irk Republican leaders in Washington and activists in early voting states like Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. If Christie selects a Republican with views that are out of step with the GOP base _ someone who supports abortion rights or gun control, for instance _ it might hurt Christie with party stalwarts. The appointee’s vote could tip the balance on issues like immigration reform, which the Senate is expected to begin debating in the weeks ahead.
Christie’s appointee also could offer a window into the governor’s own thinking on issues and thrust Christie into an ongoing fight between establishment Republicans and the GOP’s tea party wing.