With the death on Monday of New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg (D), Chris Christie, the state's Republican governor, now faces the incredibly difficult task of picking Lautenberg's successor.
At first glance, the sudden opening gives Christie a unique opportunity to reshape the state's Senate delegation. However, it could prove very problematic for him personally, since he'll be forced to balance his presidential ambitions with his looming re-election campaign.
The primary decision Christie faces is whom to appoint in a reliably blue state. New Jersey hasn't had a Republican senator since 1979, and President Obama clobbered Mitt Romney by a 17-point margin there in November.
He could choose an inoffensive placeholder to keep the seat warm until a special election. That would placate voters at home — 69 percent of whom approve of his job performance — and keep him well-positioned to cruise to re-election in November. And if he decides to run for president in 2016, it could shore up his bipartisan bona fides.
However, that would risk further alienating national Republicans, who are already embittered by Christie's buddy-buddy photo-ops with President Obama. Republicans quietly fumed last year that Christie may have cost them a shot at the White House by effusively thanking the president for his handling of Hurricane Sandy.
Here's National Journal's Josh Kraushaar on that point:
Christie also has a lot to lose if he backs down from a political fight — by picking a placeholder or even a Democrat. If he went that route, helping his sometimes-ally [Newark Mayor Cory] Booker, congressional Republicans will be upset, viewing it as one of several recent party snubs that have lost him favor with the GOP base. It would send a signal that he's not a team player, fueling criticism that first percolated from his warm embrace of President Obama in the pre-election wake of Hurricane Sandy. His early image as a confrontational conservative could be replaced by one backing down from partisan fights, other than his own. [National Journal]
Alternatively, Christie could thumb his nose at voters and install a staunch Republican, earning praise from conservatives ahead of 2016. However, that could easily spark a voter revolt that costs him political capital — or even his job.
Fascinating dilemma for Christie. Does he name interim who reflects his more moderate state,or feed Tea Partyfor '16?
— David Axelrod (@davidaxelrod) June 3, 2013
Complicating the picture is the uncertainty over when a special election will be held. Two state statutes differ on whether Christie must schedule an election this November, next November, or somewhere in between.
This, Politico's Maggie Haberman and Ginger Gibson write, is Christie's real test.
"Barring a dud of an appointee or someone whom the media picks apart, the succession isn't likely to have much of an effect on Christie nationally," they say. "Unlike, say, David Paterson, whose defining act as New York's governor was appointing Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand to fill the vacancy left by Hillary Clinton, this is not Christie's one shot at national definition and fame. Impressions of him are already fairly fixed."
The state's top Democratic official has asked Christie to hold the election this November, the concern being that a Republican appointee, given more than a year to fundraise and appeal to voters, would have a better shot in 2014. In addition, some believe that Christie would do himself damage by scheduling a Senate race alongside his cakewalk of a re-election bid.
Here's Kraushaar again:
Christie allies are concerned that if a special election is held to coincide with his gubernatorial campaign, his Democratic opponent, Barbara Buono, could benefit significantly. Assuming Booker is the Democratic nominee for the special election, he could help boost turnout among African-Americans and lower-intensity Democratic voters and make the governor's race interesting. Even with a comfortable lead in the polls, that's not a risk Christie would welcome. [National Journal]
Still, there could be some upside for Christie to a 2013 vote. As The Washington Post's Sean Sullivan argues, "Running a GOP candidate alongside a popular Christie in 2013 might also represent Republicans' best chance at an unlikely win."
Christie must soon come up with an answer to each of those looming questions. In each case, he faces a difficult political equation with the potential to either boost or dim his own future.