A Senate Conundrum for Christie

How New Jersey’s governor fills the Senate vacancy could define his political future.

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(Mel Evans/AP Photo)
Sen. Frank Lautenberg, right, D-NJ, listens as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie addresses a gathering in Lincoln Park, N.J. (Mel Evans/AP Photo)

With longtime Democratic Sen. Frank Lautenberg joining the "choir invisible," New Jersey Republican Gov. Chris Christie has been handed the opportunity to either burnish or tarnish his national ambitions in choosing a replacement.

The surprise winner of the gubernatorial race four years ago, Christie's plain-speaking, tough talking style immediately won him a national fan base and his approval numbers shot up into the stratosphere. There was serious talk of trying to recruit him into the 2012 race for the GOP presidential nomination, despite his having been governor just long enough to learn where the bathrooms were in the state capital.

Since then, however, the bloom has come off the rose. His keynote address at the 2012 Republican National Convention was poorly received by many who regarded it as an ill-considered exercise in ego rather than an effective call to vote for the GOP ticket. His embrace – both literally and figuratively – of President Barack Obama in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy left a bad taste in the mouths of many moderate and conservative Republicans who might otherwise be persuaded to support him for president in 2012.

[Check out our editorial cartoons on President Obama.]

Christie is also in the highly coveted position, for the moment at least, of being the New York Times' favorite Republican. That's something that looks good to the voters in the Washington to Boston megalopolis, but isn't all that helpful around the rest of the country. If you think otherwise, just ask President John McCain and President Mitt Romney.

Who Christie picks to fill Lautenberg's seat will be written about by just about everyone in the punditocracy as an indication of the kind of president he would be. If he wants to remain viable as a 2016 candidate, his pick needs to be bold, as well as politically smart.

He could go the left and pick former GOP Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, but that would almost certainly doom his chance of winning the Republican presidential nomination. It's true that Whitman was twice elected governor of the Garden State, but she won each election with less than 50 percent of the vote. Her tax cuts were popular, but her most notable, most memorable accomplishment was her veto of a ban on partial birth abortion passed by the New Jersey legislature.

Picking Newark, N.J., Mayor Cory Booker, would certainly be bold. A Democrat, Booker is probably the second most popular politician in the state after Christie, who could then argue he picked "the man, not the party." This would certainly help him win a second term as governor, but wouldn't do much beyond that unless Booker was willing to change parties as a condition of his appointment.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Democratic Party.]

In picking Booker, the best Christie could hope for is that most voters wouldn't count it against him. It certainly wouldn't help with his reputation as a national party builder.

Right now, the so-called smart money says that Christie will pick Tom Kean, Jr., son of the still popular former governor and current leader of the Republicans in the New Jersey State Senate. He would be a solid pick despite the fact that he has already run for U.S. Senate once and been defeated. As an incumbent, Kean would be a formidable opponent to anyone the New Jersey Democrats could find to put up against him – most likely current U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone - whenever Kean had to face the voters.

Like State Sen. Joe Kyrillos, a longtime Christie friend who is also supposedly on the "short list" of potential picks, Kean is moderate enough not to cause any problems for Christie among party regulars or alienate any but the most partisan Democrats. This makes either Kean or Kyrillos a safe choice and a politically smart one, but neither would be a particularly bold one.  It wouldn't be the kind of attention-getter that would reassure national conservatives that Christie is indeed "one of them," even if the GOP held the seat.

There are a couple of "dark horse" candidates who might to fit both the "bold" and "politically smart" categories:  magazine publisher Steve Forbes, who lives in Bedminster, N.J., and former Republican National Chairman Ed Gillespie, who was born and raised in New Jersey and maintains a house there.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

Forbes is a nationally-known conservative leader, especially on economic issues. A committed tax cutter, he is an advocate for the kind of pro-growth economic policies no one in the Senate, Republican or Democrat, seems to be able to articulate these days. Having once run for the GOP presidential nomination, he knows what campaigning is like and would not be lost like a "babe in the woods" when it came time to run for re-election. He has a national following and would have no trouble raising the millions that would be needed to keep the seat in the GOP column at election time. He could even write the check himself.

Gillespie is also an intriguing choice. A known quantity to conservatives and currently head of the Republican State Leadership Committee, he knows how Capitol Hill works and would immediately become a senate leader on those issues which captured his attention. He's never been a candidate for office, but he knows how campaigns should be run and how congressional offices should be organized. He'd be a solid senator and could show other Republicans how to win in what are generally considered hopelessly blue states. Fundraising at election time would not be a problem for him either, as his rolodex, compiled over years as Republican National Committee chairman, state party leader and senior aid to congressional leaders and one U.S. president is quite extensive.

In picking either of these two, Christie has the potential to shake up his reputation and the U.S. Senate in one bold stroke, something that would no doubt go over well among the activists whose support he needs to mount an effective presidential campaign.

In picking the man or woman to fill Lautenberg's empty seat, Christie has a chance to show whether or not he is a smart politician and whether or not he is a conservative. The right pick may help him with his presidential ambitions. The wrong pick will be remembered by everyone who votes in a GOP presidential primary.

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