Saturday, October 12, 2013

New Jersey U.S. Senate Special Election

New Jersey U.S. Senate

Status: Republican Open

2012 Presidential Result: Blue State (East)

Prediction: Likely Democrat

The ultimate result of this special election in the Garden State has never been in doubt since the race became a necessity but that is not to say there has not been a lot of intrigue and things to discuss involving it.

Liberal, combative, and elderly, Democrat Senator Frank Lautenberg passed away earlier this year of cancer.  He had already announced his plans to retire from the Senate after the 2014 elections (after having previously retired temporarily from an earlier stint in the Senate) but not without some bitter feelings. Popular Newark Mayor Cory Booker, an African-American, considered to be a rising star on the national stage, had indicated that he was prepared to run for the Senate in 2014 regardless of what Lautenberg did. The incumbent had signaled that he wanted to keep serving in the Senate but after polls showed that Booker would be a favorite to defeat him in a primary, he reluctantly announced he would not seek reelection.

Not too long after, Lautenberg died, a sad event, regardless of what might have thought about the man personally or politically, but his passing did open up avenues of opportunity to Booker, other Democrats, and even Republicans.

The seat will of course be contested once again in November of 2014, and whomever wins that contest, will earn a six year term in the Senate, but there was much to be determined in regards to what would happen before hand.

First, it was up to the state's popular Republican Governor Chris Christie, who is seeking a reelection I will discuss next week, to appoint a replacement to immediately serve in the U.S. Senate. In recent months, Christie had been walking somewhat of a political tight-rope between wanting to remain popular in Democrat heavy New Jersey, and win a smashing second term victory, while many also believed that he harbors serious Presidential ambitions. With that in mind, he may also be torn between wanting to please conservative partisans around the country and appearing to be the kind of moderate, electable national figure.

So, what would Christie do? Would he appoint a temporary caretaker for the seat such as former Governor Tom Kean? Would he appoint a politically ambitious Republican who wanted to seek a full term as an incumbent? Might he even appoint Cory Booker, with whom he is friendly, and relieved when Booker did not challenge his reelection?

Then, there was the matter of if there would need to be a special election and when. Legal experts weighed in and it seemed like the initial decision would be up to Christie, who would then potentially face a judicial challenge.

Speaking as a partisan Republican from outside New Jersey, it seems to me that Christie should not have scheduled an expensive special election (which would be likely to be won by a Democrat) and instead appoint a Republican to take Lautenberg's seat (which is totally his right) and then say the people can weigh in as scheduled in 2014.

Instead, Christie decided it was necessary to call for an October special election, saying the people had the right to choose their Senator. He did so knowing full well that a Democrat, Booker in particular, was almost certain to take the seat. While many believe the state Supreme Court could have ruled it necessary to hold a 2013 special election, Christie did not even attempt to place a Republican in the closely divided U.S. Senate, for as long of a period of time as possible and to which he had the legal right to do so.

While I think Christie is a good Governor, this is another example of something that very much paints him in a negative political light to me. He seems to be looking out for himself and his heavily favored reelection, with an eye towards future options, than doing what was right for his party, his state, and his country.

It is believed that Christie feared the Supreme Court would schedule a special election for November, when the entire state would already be voting (which seems to make sense for many reasons, including from a cost-saving approach) and that Booker being on the ballot as the Democrat Senate nominee might gin up African-American turnout and thus win votes for Christie's heavily underdog Democrat opponent for Governor. While this may have very well been the case to some extent, it is still hard to see how having to share a ballot with Booker in another race would have come close to causing Christie to lose. Instead, it seems to be all about Christie somewhat selfishly trying to preserve about five points of his victory margin. Some Christie defenders say that he made this tough decision in order to help GOP legislative candidates in in the state in November, and it was not about his reelection at all. I find that theory to be a bit of a stretch because even if Booker did drive up Democrat turnout, especially among minorities, that would be almost exclusively limited to the overwhelmingly Democrat parts of the state where down ballot GOP candidates had little chance of victory to begin with.

Christie could have appointed someone who would be a credible candidate for any special election, but instead appointed a respectable Republican who made it clear he had no intention of seeking the office, either in 2013 or 2014.

Republican Jeff Chiesa, who had been serving as Christie's appointed Attorney General, has been sitting in the U.S. Senate and as a virtual temp worker, has not been much of a presence on Capitol Hill. Thus, a Democrat win on Tuesday will technically be a party pickup for them, but considering that it was Lautenberg's seat, and the state's GOP Governor did everything possible to give away a seat as quickly as possible, it's really not all that much of an accomplishment.

So, with the October special election set, without even forcing a court to rule it necessary, Booker quickly jumped into the contest on the Democrat side and became the heavy favorite to move to Washington. Not all members of his party (including Lautenberg's family) were happy about his coronation. Two members of the state's Democrat Congressional delegation jumped into the primary, as well as the African-American female Speaker of the State Assembly, but Booker still easily cruised to victory.

On the GOP side, nobody remotely formidable stepped up to take on an uphill race. The primary was easily won by Steve Lonegan, a legally blind former Mayor of Bogota, who is an outspoken conservative, who had challenged Christie for the GOP Gubernatorial nomination in 2009. That was his second attempt at winning a Gubernatorial primary, and he had also lost a Congressional bid once. Needless to say, he was considered to have virtually no chance against Booker.

Interestingly enough, polling data of late has indicated that Lonegan may be running more competitively than expected, and that Booker as a statewide candidate, has failed to live up to expectations. What is considered to be a low turnout special election leads to some unanswered questions about just how this all may shake out, but still virtually nobody expects that Lonegan may win. If he would, it would be the biggest political upset of U.S. Senate history.

The Booker campaign appears to be taking their Tea Party backed opponent somewhat seriously, by running negative ads, and by the way that the Mayor of Newark attacked him during a debate last week. That debate overall was a pretty nasty affair, in a state known for those kind of battles. The unabashed conservatism of Lonegan probably won the applause of many on the right across the country, (while others, like myself, may be a bit put off by the frequently Ron Paulish bent to his politics)  but probably did not help him win any converts in New Jersey. The same might be said for some nationally prominent figures on the right who are coming to the Garden State on behalf of Lonegan, including Sarah Palin, Rick Perry, and Ron Paul. Lonegan does also have the endorsement of Governor Christie, although both men are probably a little bit uneasy about that one.

Most had expected polls at this late stage of the game to show Booker ahead of Lonegan by Barack Obama vs. Alan Keyes like numbers, but instead, Booker's lead seems to be by low double digits. Some conservatives claim that there are private numbers showing an even closer race but I tend to doubt that. Recent headlines involving statements by Lonegan and his associates (including a top campaign aide who was quickly fired) have the potential of harming the Republican nominee in the final days of the campaign, but the race has always been mostly about Booker.

Questions about Booker's record of Mayor, some interesting and to some unsavory aspects of his personal life and issues of personal honesty have been entered into the campaign, and while it has taken a bit of a toll, it does not seem to be nearly enough to actually cost him a victory in a state as liberal as New Jersey.

While Cory (who spells his name that way) Booker is almost certain to be headed to the U.S. Senate in a few days, and where he will be a national figure due to several factors including his race, his overall political reputation may have taken a hit by not looking poised to win by as huge of a margin as he was expected to and probably should have won by. Republicans may claim a moral victory by damaging Booker in such a way where he is not being talked about much anymore as a potential Presidential candidate, as soon as 2016.

Booker, as an incumbent, will have a chance to win again next year, and will be favored to do so, since it does not seem likely that a major Republican is itching to run statewide against him. Governor Christie's personal machinations have certainly not helped his party in the state for future contests beyond his own in a few weeks. I just am left thinking that a Republican may very well have been allowed to serve all the way through the end of next year, at the minimum, had Christie even tried to exert that right.

Lonegan campaign link: