Gov. Chris Christie is the most unpopular governor in the country, but in his last days in office he may get to exercise enormous influence nationally: Choosing a successor to embattled U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez, which could result in a Republican senator, at least temporarily, from deep blue New Jersey.
Menendez, a Democrat and New Jersey’s senior senator, goes on trial for corruption in September, and there are two scenarios that could see him leave Washington before Christie is term-limited out of office in January: If Menendez is convicted and the Senate acts quickly to expel him; or if he cuts a plea deal and leaves office even earlier.
The stakes are high, as the battle over replacing the Affordable Care Act has made abundantly clear. Republicans’ slim two-vote majority in the Senate — and the fact some GOP incumbents up for re-election in 2018 reside in swing states — means every vote is crucial for passing parts of the Trump agenda.
“I think it’s urgent,” said Democratic state Sen. Loretta Weinberg, one of Christie’s most outspoken critics.
A top contender for the spot would be Assembly minority leader Jon Bramnick — a moderate Republican who has been unfailingly loyal to Christie and has helped keep the Democratic state Legislature from overriding dozens of the governor’s vetoes.
But it could be any number of people who inhabit the governor’s inner circle.
Several Democrats and political observers didn’t even discount the possibility that Christie could put himself in the seat.
New Jersey’s confusing, contradictory U.S. Senate succession laws effectively give Christie carte blanche in appointing a successor.
One law says a vacant Senate seat must be filled in the next general election as long as the vacancy occurred at least 70 days before the vote. The other says the vacancy has to occur at least 70 days before the primary election in order to be filled at the next general election. Both statutes allow Christie to appoint an interim successor, and both give him the option to call a special election before the general election.
Despite several attempts, Democrats who control both chambers of the state Legislature never managed to pass a bill that would force Christie to appoint a senator who belongs to the same party as the one who previously occupied the vacant seat — meaning Christie would be all but certain to appoint a Republican.
Democrats would breathe a sigh of relief if Menendez is acquitted or if he manages to delay resignation or expulsion to January, when a new governor will take office. Democratic nominee Phil Murphy is heavily favored to win the governorship.
Still, if Menendez is acquitted, state Democrats will have to grapple with whether to support his re-election campaign in 2018, which the senator has made clear he intends to pursue.
Democrats are especially sensitive about even talking about life after Menendez while his trial is pending. The senator, who came up through the Hudson County Democratic machine, still wields enormous influence over local politics. With few exceptions, Democrats have held off on openly maneuvering to succeed him.
“I just have faith that the senator is going to be exonerated, and we’ll go on from there,” state Democratic Chairman John Currie said.
Process-wise, New Jersey has dealt with similar situations quite recently. When Democratic U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg died in June 2013, Christie, up for re-election that November, appointed his confidant, former state Attorney General Jeff Chiesa, a Republican, to temporarily fill the seat. But only for a few months.
Christie, at the time, was banking on a landslide re-election victory to help his prospects for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. He could have scheduled the election to replace Lautenberg to coincide with his November 2013 re-election. Instead, he called a special election for mid-October 2013, just three weeks before his own re-election — a move that cost the state approximately $12 million.
Critics said Christie’s decision was designed to avoid having him appear on the same ballot as the popular Democratic Senate nominee, then-Newark Mayor Cory Booker. Christie explained it this way at the time: "The issues facing the U.S. Senate are too critically important, the decisions that need to be dealt with too vital, not to have an elected representative making those decisions who was voted on and decided on by the people of this state."
So if Christie were to appoint a Menendez successor to serve until the November 2018 general election, he would be contradicting himself.
Still, few would be surprised to see Christie appoint a Republican to stay in office as long as possible this time around.
“A normal person would feel awkward about changing that, but he wouldn’t even bat an eye,” said former U.S. Sen. Robert Torricelli, a Democrat who is openly eyeing Menendez’s seat, should it become vacant. “No one has proven more flexible with both facts and principle than Chris Christie.”
Asked during a Monday press conference whether he would call a special election to replace Menendez if he’s forced from office, Christie wouldn’t say.
“Sen. Menendez is presumed innocent until proven guilty, and he deserves that presumption of innocence, he’s earned that presumption of innocence as a United States citizen, and it would be in my mind inappropriate for the governor of this state to be speculating,” Christie said. “I’m not going to answer questions about a vacancy in the United States Senate that presumes the finding of guilt by a jury before anyone has heard one stitch of evidence. It’s not appropriate. I won’t engage in it.”
Ross Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers University who studies the U.S. Senate, said Christie’s ability to appoint a crucial Senate vote is a long shot because it depends on “contingency piled upon contingency.”
“Theoretically, it’s certainly a possibility. And it’s the kind of thing that gives Chuck Schumer bad dreams,” Baker said.
New Jersey would be an odd state to provide a crucial Republican vote. Although New Jerseyans often elect Republican governors, the state is deep blue when it comes to national politics. So blue, in fact, that it’s been 45 years since a Republican won an election for U.S. Senate there.
Appointing a Republican like Bramnick, who might seek reelection to the seat, might complicate things for Republicans, who would have a harder time counting on the vote of a senator who would have to answer to voters.
And then there’s the most scintillating possibility: The governor would be within his rights to appoint himself to the seat. To do so, Christie would again have to contradict himself.
“I would rather die than be in the United States Senate,” Christie said in 2014. A year later, he said he would “rather jump off the Brooklyn Bridge than be in Congress.”
Experts didn’t automatically dismiss the idea.
Monmouth University pollster Patrick Murray said that despite Christie’s 15 percent approval rating, it’s clear he still nurses presidential ambitions.
“In terms of rescuing his political ambitions, we’ve seen Christie basically scraping the bottom of the barrel for whatever crumbs he can get,” Murray said. “So nothing is out of the realm of possibility.”
Ryan Hutchins contributed to this report.