When Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) died last month, it opened the door to a special election to fill his place in the U.S. Senate. Governor Chris Christie would first need to fill Lautenberg’s seat on an interim basis and almost expectedly chose a Republican in Attorney General Jeffrey Chiesa to head to the U.S. Senate in his place. Christie’s choice on when to hold the special election to fill the remainder of Lautenberg’s term has much more talked about and debated.
Christie could have pushed the special election back to November 2014. That choice would likely bring legal troubles led by Democratic leaders in the state while garnering much praise from Republicans as Chiesa would be a potentially reliable vote for the minority party in the U.S. Senate and give the party more time to either present Chiesa or another candidate and try to break the 40 plus year trend of New Jersey only electing Democrats to the U.S. Senate. The other probable option would be to place the special election on the same day as the state races this November. On the ballot that day is Christie and a special election for the U.S. Senate had the great chance to feature popular Newark Mayor Cory Booker on the same ballot. This move would be much preferred for Democrats in hopes of boosting Democratic gubernatorial candidate and state Senator Barbara Buono (D-18)’s chances against Christie while upsetting Republicans with a shorter timetable to plan a strong campaign.
However, Christie would choose a third option and one somewhat expected after some discussions and speculation around it: a special election to take place in October three weeks before the November elections.
This decision has gotten flack from both parties. There has been discussions around this decision and its legality. However, not talked about as much since Lautenberg’s death is Christie’s decision to appoint Chiesa to replace Lautenberg. That decision might have been a bit different if Democrats had passed a piece of legislation four years ago regarding U.S. Senate succession.
Not too long after Christie had been elected governor, Democrats worried about U.S. Senate succession. They may have been thinking about the age of Lautenberg and his potential early retirement most notably in regard to why Christie would need to fill a vacancy. They tried and would fall short of introducing legislation that would have required the governor to choose a candidate of the same party in the event an incumbent left office early.
The move’s failure was largely because then Senate President Richard Codey (D-27) did not want to come across as too partisan with the move.
As he would say at time,
“I do believe that whoever replaces the United States senator should be of the same party. But having said that, any party could have changed this at any point in time… it just looks strictly partisan and is the wrong message at this time.”
If Codey would have presented that legislation and it would have passed, it would have changed how Christie approached filling Lautenberg’s vacancy. Christie had the potential to schedule a special election as late as next November and without the legislation discussed in 2009, Republicans would have a Republican senator from New Jersey on their side for about a year and a half at the minimum. Instead of someone like Booker going to Washington D.C. to replace Lautenberg, it is Chiesa.
Four years later, Codey has no regrets. He would express,
“If you look at other states and the history of our state that’s the way it’s always been done. To change it to suit a certain circumstance isn’t right.”
Before Christie officially announced the special election date, Codey would also voice;
“Hopefully (the governor) will do the right thing and hold the special election in November and if not he should be criticized for playing partisan politics.”
Christie has certainly be accused of such by avoiding a likely higher Democratic voter turnout due to the special election that likely will feature Booker on the ballot. A larger margin of victory over Buono would give him more bravado to govern during his second term and would certainly assist his image on the national stage as a top tier candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016.
The aspect of U.S. Senate succession is something certainly discussed anytime a member of the U.S. Senate either passes away, retires, or takes another post. Massachusetts just recently had a special election of their own to fill the vacancy left by Secretary of State John Kerry. Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) was replacing a Democratic replacement in Mo Cowan. Democrats largely due to President Barack Obama and cabinet appointments he has selected have seen multiple retirements over the last few years.
Based on Christie’s choice of Chiesa, there might be discussions to potentially consider legislation on the topic of U.S. Senate succession again. It probably is unlikely with other matters in the state to address and higher on the Democratic-led State Legislature’s agenda like the minimum wage or same sex marriage as well as the state’s budget and the economy and jobs. Legislation like the one discussed four years as Codey comes across as partisan and certainly it would draw criticism if it ever passed.