A little history is in order as N.J. Gov. Chris Christie contemplates who he will select as placeholder for the seat left vacant by the death of Sen. Frank Lautenberg.
Just ask Bob Grant, a radio talk show pioneer, who dominated the New York market for years. Throughout his career, Grant has been a forceful proponent of constitutional limited government and a persistent critic of big government liberals such as Sen. Lautenberg. It was during the 1994 election cycle, the year of the Gingrich Revolution, that the Republicans came closest to unseating Lautenberg. That was before many of the same Republicans who had benefited politically from multiple appearances on the Grant program turned against the radio talk show host. This would include then Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, who agreed to discontinue her association with Grant after black ministers claimed he had made racially insensitive remarks. (It’s a long, complicated story covered in a previous post.) From this point forward, Garabed “Chuck” Haytaian, the Republican nominee, who had been gaining on Lautenberg in the polls, went on to play defense. Haytaian, who was also the Republican state assembly speaker at the time, had a long association with Grant, but refrained from taking part in the radio program for the duration of the campaign. The end result is that Lautenberg managed to win re-election in a year when the Republicans won a majority in the House and Senate. Since then, he was never seriously challenged again.
Unlike his Republican predecessors in the 1990s, Gov. Christie clearly knows how to go on offense and connect with voters in a blue state dominated by left-leaning media organs. That’s why he has become a national figure who is viewed as a serious contender for president come 2016. Assuming he wins re-election by a large margin, Christie will need to mend fences with conservatives who say he was overly effusive in his praise of President Barack Obama in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. Phil Kerpen, president of American Commitment, sees an opportunity for Christie with the open U.S. Senate seat and some potential pitfalls.
“If Christie wants to be a contender for national office, he needs to appoint a strong conservative like Steve Lonegan, Mike Doherty, or Scott Garrett,” he said. “Even if he appoints a conservative who loses the seat, he will have acted on principle and burnished his reputation. Liberal Republicans like Joe Kyrillos and Tom Kean Jr. have been blown out in recent elections and are likely to vote with Democrats much of the time anyway.”
He added: “If Christie does the unthinkable and appoints a Democrat, he might as well change parties himself. He would no longer be a member of the national GOP for all practical purposes.”
In a state where the Democrats enjoy a 700,000 voter registration advantage, Republicans would have preferred to see Christie appoint someone from his own party who could then run as the incumbent in 2014. But as he explained during a press conference yesterday, “The people need to have a voice and choice.” For this reason, the governor is calling for an August 11 primary and an Oct. 16 special election so that the voting public as opposed to “insiders” and “elites” determine who will be nominated to run in the special election and who will be elected to represent N.J. in the U.S. Senate.
Since Christie is up for re-election on Nov. 5, it means N.J. will have two statewide elections three weeks apart. But it also means that the Democratic turnout for the special election will not intrude upon the governor’s race. That’s an understandable calculus to make in a state that hasn’t elected a Republican to the U.S. Senate since 1972.
But in reality, the state is much more competitive between the two parties than is commonly thought. During this time, the late Sen. Lautenberg had more than a little help from inept Republican campaigns, as we have seen, and activist judges.
If the state Democratic Party did not steal the election in 2002, Republican businessman Douglas Forrester probably would have been elected U.S. senator. Instead of upholding a statue that said candidates for statewide office could not be replaced within 51 days of an election, the N.J. Supreme Court issued a ruling that allowed the Democrats to drop then incumbent Sen. Robert Torricelli’s name from the ballot and replace it with that of Frank Lautenberg, who had retired from the U.S. Senate in 2000. In response to ethics allegations, Torricelli ended his re-election campaign 35 days prior to the election. By this time, it was clearly illegal to insert Lautenberg’s name.
The “Torricelli Switch” came at a time when President George W. Bush was quite popular. That’s how quickly history turns. The GOP would go on to gain a narrow majority in the U.S. Senate that following November. In the aftermath of 9/11, Bush managed to pick up seats during the midterm elections; a rare achievement for the party controlling the White House. Forrester may not have lasted beyond one term, but would have provided some helpful votes in the interim.
Of all the policy changes Christie has sought during his time as governor, there is one that stands out in my view. That would be his willingness to challenge the activism of the N.J. Supreme Court. That could be an enduring legacy at the state level. If he were to pick a solid conservative for the open U.S. Senate seat, as Kerpen suggests, that someone could conceivably cast a vote in favor of a constitutional justice for U.S. Supreme Court. That would be an enduring national legacy.