Christie Wastes $25M in Gambit to Win Re-Election
With the passing of New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg this week, the national political conversation has begun to turn to Lautenberg’s home state as talking heads pondered first the question of what date Governor Chris Christie would schedule for a special election to replace Lautenberg, and then the question of who would get the interim appointment to Lautenberg’s old seat. The first question has already been answered, as Christie has scheduled the election for October 16. The second question has not yet been answered, but is, at the present moment, of less consequence. Because in scheduling the special election for October 16, Christie has essentially just pledged to spend $25 million to make sure he wins re-election this November, and that he does so convincingly.
Some background may be necessary. New Jersey holds elections on a slightly different schedule than the rest of us, because of some dumb reason nobody cares about. Virginia does it too. Point is, there are a whole bunch of New Jersey elections coming up this November. There are state Senate races, state Assembly races, and a gubernatorial race. Christie has appeared headed for an easy re-election victory for quite some time, and Democrats have virtually ignored the campaign of his challenger, Barbara Buono. As soon as Cory Booker, the wildly popular Democratic Mayor of Newark, decided not to run, Democrats wrote off the New Jersey gubernatorial election.
Christie, of course, also has ambitious designs on the White House. It’s widely assumed that he will seek the Republican Presidential nomination in 2016, and he would easily be the most dangerous candidate for Hillary Clinton or any other Democratic nominee. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that Hillary easily defeats any Republican other than Christie and Christie easily defeats any Democrat other than Hillary. Put those two head to head and you have a legitimate Presidential horse race, the likes of which have not been seen since George W. Bush “defeated” Al Gore in 2000. Such an election could be a real watershed for American politics in much the same way that Ronald Reagan’s victory over Jimmy Carter was.
But while Christie has a lot of strengths in a general election, he has some real vulnerabilities in the context of a primary campaign. Conservatives–for some inexplicable reason–don’t trust him, and there’s a growing feeling around the Republican Party that its elected leadership is too dominated by blue-state Republicans.
Speaker of the House John Boehner–a.k.a. Doc Savage, the Man of Bronze–is from Ohio, once a swing state that is rapidly turning blue. Eric Cantor, the House Majority Leader, is from Virginia, another state that used to be swing and is now even bluer than Ohio. Kevin McCarthy, the House Majority Whip, is from California, perhaps the quintessential blue state. Peter Roskam, the Chief Deputy Whip in the House Republican Caucus, is from Illinois, which is also where Barack Obama and a shitload of other Democrats are from. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, the Chair of the House Republican Conference, is from Washington, which is solidly blue. The House Republican Campaign Committee Chairman, Greg Walden, is from Oregon, which sent no other Republican to the House in 2012. That’s the top five positions in the House Republican Caucus, all occupied by members from blue states.
Conservatives think that makes these folks somewhat out-of-touch with the rabid, frothy-mouthed Republican base, and they’re probably right to some degree. Boehner and Rodgers, particularly, are cut from an older political cloth, hearkening back to a time when Republicans and Democrats worked together to accomplish the business of governance. This conservative distrust of blue-state Republicans means that conservatives are going to be giving Chris Christie an even hairier eyeball.
Christie wants to win his re-election in big style. He wants to clobber Barbara Buono. If he does that in a blue state, he can make a powerful case that he can deliver a victory to the Republican Party. It’s a flawed case, since New Jersey is a very moderate, almost right-leaning blue state, and since Christie has support from a lot of traditionally Democratic-aligned power brokers, but it’s a powerful case nonetheless.
This brings us to the Lautenberg special election. Republicans and Democrats alike wanted Christie to schedule it to coincide with the November statewide office elections. Republicans wanted him to do that so they would have time to scramble a decent candidate. Democrats wanted him to do that because having Cory Booker, the almost-definitely-absolutely-gonna-be-the Democratic nominee, on the ballot would give Buono some much-needed coattails. And both parties liked the idea because it would save the state money. $25 million, in fact.
Christie scheduled the election earlier than November, however. It was a very calculated move, on a lot of levels. First, it gives the Republicans virtually no time to find a good candidate to run against Booker, which pisses them off, which makes Christie look bipartisan. Second, it all but guarantees Booker wins the seat, and Booker is a friend of Christie’s. Always good to have friends in the Senate. Third–and this is the real kicker–it takes Booker off the November ballot, robbing Buono of Booker’s coattails.
Booker would almost certainly have brought young people, people of color, and poor people to the polls in force, maybe even in record numbers. He’s New Jersey’s Barack Obama, and not just because he’s black. In fact, in a couple election cycles, he very well might be the Democratic nominee for President, and he’ll probably make a better Barack Obama than Barack Obama did. Putting Booker on the November ballot would be almost as bad, for Christie, as actually running against Booker.
All of this boils down to one sobering fact: Chris Christie just pledged $25 million of taxpayer money to make sure he wins re-election, that his margin of victory is huge, that he sets himself up well for a Presidential run in 2016, and that he has a friend in the Senate. Who says political corruption is dead in New Jersey?