Yes, it’s crass and cynical to begin the political speculation the moment someone dies. But to paraphrase Hyman Roth, this is the business they chose. So what happens now? Christie will appoint someone to fill the seat, and then there will be a special election, presumably in November, to fill the rest of Lautenberg’s term, which ends in 2014, then there will be another election. So there could be three different senators in this seat over the next year and a half.
Chris Christie would like to be president. I’m not saying he’s definitely running in 2016, but he pretty obviously would like it, as would just about every governor and senator. But he knows that in order to get there, he’s going to have to go through the party base, the same one that made Mitt Romney so miserable. He knows they’ll be watching what he does now, which means it’s a bad idea to appoint some moderate Republican squish like former governor Tom Kean. That leaves him with two real choices. He can find some rabid right-winger, which will please Republican primary voters but be condemned in the press as shameless pandering to those Republican primary voters. Or he can appoint someone no one has ever heard of to warm the chair for a few months, like Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick did when he named his former chief of staff, Mo Cowan, to fill John Kerry’s seat when Kerry became Secretary of State. I’m guessing you haven’t heard too much about Cowan since then. That seems like the most likely route for Christie to take.
The caretaker route, of course, would deny Christie any control over the identity of his most prominent ticket-mate in November. And while Christie’s re-election prospects are very rosy at present, New Jersey is a blue state, and developments in the other big off-year election state of Virginia are showing that linking arms (even figuratively) with crazy people can be hazardous to a gubernatorial campaign. But the only thing worse for Christie’s presidential aspirations than appointing some RINO squish to the seat is to spend a good part of a re-election campaign having to decide whether to embrace or repudiate a Senate candidate who becomes wildly popular with “the base” for chewing on raw steak in public and promising to complete the “vetting” of the satanic Barack Obama. So the New Jersey governor needs to tread very carefully right now.