[PLEASE NOTE SPECIAL UPDATE
AT THE END OF THIS POST]
The death of Senator Frank Lautenberg, a Democrat from
New Jersey, does not usually present much dilemma for a
state governor who almost always is expected to appoint a
replacement until the next election. State laws vary,
sometimes the appointment is to fill out the remainder of
the deceased senator’s term, sometimes until the next
general election, and sometimes through a special election
usually determined by the governor or the legislature.
Governors are expected to name a replacement from their
own party, and not from the deceased’s party if it is not
Most governors do not appoint themselves to the
post because, although they can, voters usually react
negatively, and subsequently vote them out. (A classic
example occurred in 1976 when a very popular Minnesota
governor, Wendell Anderson, appointed himself, and
subsequently lost election to the post in 1978 by a wide
Earlier this year, when another senior Democrat, Daniel
Inoye of Hawaii, died, Democratic Governor Neil Abercrombie
surprised state politicos when he appointed his Lt. Governor
Brian Schatz over Congesswoman Colleen Hanabusa (who had
been Inoye’s stated choice). As a result, Hanabusa is running
against Schatz in next year’s Democratic primary. Interestingly,
Hawaii law states that the governor shall appoint someone from
the deceased’s party (from a list of three submitted to the
governor from that party), and that the appointment shall last
until the next general election.
New Jersey law is more ambiguous about how long a
gubernatorial appointee is to serve. Governor Chris Christie
is a Republican in a traditionally Democratic state. If
Christie were not so nationally prominent, and a likely
2016 presidential contender, common political sense would
be for him to appoint a Republican to serve until Senator
Lautenberg’s term was set to expire in 2015 (so as to have
time to build his or her standing with state voters for the
But New Jersey is unusual since it holds its gubernatorial
elections in an in-between year (the next one is, in fact,
this year), and Mr. Christie understandably wishes to win
his re-election by as wide a margin as possible. If he opted
for the special senate election this year, he risks having
his efforts overshadowed by a popular Democratic senate
candidate (perhaps Mayor Cory Booker of Newark). No one
suggests the colorful incumbent governor would lose this year
(he leads all polls by a wide margin), but a less-than-a-landslide
result might hurt any 2016 presidential ambitions.) Mayor
Booker on the ticket would likely bring out lots of Democratic
voters that otherwise might not vote.
On the other hand, if Christie opted for a 2014 senate contest,
he is open to the charge that he is thwarting New Jersey’s
previous preference for a Democrat in that office. This
normally is not a serious consideration, and most governors
routinely appoint a temporary replacement from their own
party, regardless of the party of the person who has vacated
the position by death or resignation (an exception is the law
in Hawaii cited above).
Governor Christie has already chosen to go for the 2013
option, citing the need for New Jersey voters to have a
new senator of their choice as soon as possible, but he has
added a twist to the scenario. Using his powers as governor,
he has set the senate primary for August and the general
election for mid-October, even though there is a general
election already scheduled for a few weeks later in November
(an election in which Christie is running for re-election).
Governor Christie might have scheduled the general election
the same day as the already-scheduled election, and saved
taxpayers several millions of dollars. The problem with
that otherwise common sense plan is that New Jersey
law requires the governor to set the primary date and
special election date a certain number of days after he
officially announces the special election. (This has not been
widely included in reports of this story so far.) In order to
hold the special senate election on the same day as the 2013
general election, as I understand it, Governor Christie would
have been forced to delay announcement of his decision for
I think such a delay, given the news media badgering, would
have been politically unwise, especially as the governor was
embarking on his own re-election campaign at this time.
As others have pointed out, had Senator Lautenberg died
30 days earlier or 30 days later, the New Jersey law would
have been much less ambiguous. In any event, the final
decision, everyone agrees, was up to the governor.
Was the decision political? Of course it was. Every decision
by any elected official always has political implications. Was it
self-serving? Yes. I don’t know any politician at any level of
government who faces a political decision, and does not try to
maximize its political consequences. Was it the smartest or
best decision? We don’t know the answer to that question yet.
First of all, Mr. Christie has to make a caretaker appointment
for the senate seat in the near future. That almost certainly
will be a Republican, perhaps Christie’s own mentor and
the highly respected Thomas Kean Sr. (now 78). It could also
be his son, Thomas Kean Jr., an important state legislator.
That person would serve until the special election (about 5
months), and could also run for the GOP nomination in
August, and election in October. On the Democratic side,
the special election presents unanticipated problems for Mr.
Booker (who had been expected to win the Democratic
nomination in 2014). He will now probably face a heated
primary race with one or two Democratic congressmen,
Frank Pallone and Rush Holt Jr.. Pallone and Holt now do
not risk their house seats (as they would have had they run
in a 2014 primary). Whomever the Democratic nominee will
be, he or she will probably win the seat, but the Democratic
campaign will have to spend all its efforts in getting out the
Democratic vote in October. With Christie leading by such a
wide margin, it might be problematic for Democratic leaders
to turn out a strong vote again a few weeks later.
The bottom line is that the senate vacancy at this time has
presented Chris Christie with some difficult choices. He has
appeared to make the choice that makes him the most
comfortable in a highly charged political and media
The key to answering the question about whether the
course he has chosen is politically smart or not will be
answered by the voters of New Jersey. Considering his
remarkable success with these voters so far, and his unique
skills in presenting himself to them, it might be too soon to
judge his actions as a mistake.
As for his prospects in 2016, any judgment about how he
might fare then is quite premature. He has larger problems
and opportunities ahead then than how he handles a U.S.
senate vacancy now.
Copyright (c) 2013 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.
UPDATE - JUNE 6, 2013
Governor Christie has now chosen his long-time friend and
associate, New Jersey Attorney General Jeffrey Chiesa to serve
as the interim U.S. senator taking the place of the late Frank
Lautenberg until mid-October, 2013 (about five months) when
a new senator will be elected in a special election. Mr. Chiesa
is a Republican who describes himself as a conservative. He
announced he would not be running in the special election.
As suggested in the post above, Congressman Rush Holt Jr., a
Democrat, has now announced his candidacy for the special
election. Congressman Frank Pallone and Newark Mayor Cory
Booker are also expected to imminently announce their
candidacies. Monday, June10 is the filing deadline for the
special election. So far, no big GOP names have announced
they will run. Mayor Booker is the favorite, but Mr. Holt and
Mr. Pallone, as sitting congressmen, are serious candidates.
New Jersey is a political mosh pit, and the primary is likely to
be expensive and bruising. The Democratic primary winner
is very likely to win the special election in this blue state.
Although Governor Christie is being criticized for the timing
of the special election by both New Jersey Democrats and
national Republicans, it is becoming clearer that, although he
might have opted for a 2014 special election, such a decision
would have been challenged by the Democrats in court, and
they very likely would have won that challenge since the state
supreme court is dominated by liberal Democrats. New Jersey
law currently also prohibits a 2013 special senate election in
November when the general election is already scheduled to take
place. Some New Jersey Democrats are planning to introduce
legislation to require the 2013 special election in November,
but while the legislature is controlled by Democrats, the governor
could veto the bill. He has already labeled such a move as
Copyright (c) 2013 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.