Will he run next year or won’t he? This has become the burning question in New Jersey political circles since Newark Mayor Cory Booker was omnipresent at the recent Democratic National Convention in Charlotte. Booker and his entourage were everywhere at the convention, throwing around every imaginable piece of swag that the six letters of his last name could fit on, leading many people who had previously resigned themselves to the expectation that he would be taking a pass on a gubernatorial run in 2013 in favor of a senatorial run in 2014 to do a rethink.
One wonders if he and his staffers were more focused on their responsibilities related to the construction of the Democratic Party’s platform and less focused on getting his name out, figuratively and literally, to the party faithful in Charlotte, they might not have forgotten to include God and Jerusalem in the final draft, which required a last minute floor fix and the public display of disrespect to anyone who might take either or both of these concepts somewhat seriously that ensued.
While these murmurs and whispers about Booker’s statewide ambitions and how they will play themselves out continue, another question should be asked, the answer to which could have a huge impact on this decision and many others. Will New Jersey Governor Chris Christie run for re-election next year? By all rights, this should seem like a silly question. After spending most of the last year talking about why he was not going to run for President this year and was not interested in being Mitt Romney’s Vice President, it is clear that regardless of the outcome of this November’s Presidential election, everything that Christie does going forward is geared towards a future Presidential run, whether that be in 2016 or 2020. Most would assume that the first step towards becoming a Presidential candidate in one of the next two cycles would be winning re-election next year. However, that is not necessarily a correct assumption.
After serving only one term as the Governor of Massachusetts, Mitt Romney, the current Republican Presidential nominee, was a stronger candidate in 2008 than anyone would have expected and probably would have been a stronger general election candidate that year as the country was in the midst of a complete and total economic collapse than he has been this year as trust in President Barack Obama’s domestic and foreign policy vision appears to be growing at the same time that perceptions of Romney as more of a craven political opportunist than leader and statesmen are becoming the dominant narrative. As exciting and popular as President Obama might have been four years ago, it is very possible that a Romney-McCain ticket on the Republican side would have inspired enough confidence, particularly on economic issues, to win a narrow victory. Either way, the fact that Romney was only Governor for one term was never an obstacle for him either in 2008 or 2012.
Obviously, the greatest factor in Christie’s decision-making process going forward is the outcome of this November’s Presidential election. If Obama wins, Christie is already viewed by many Republicans as their party’s best chance to reclaim the Presidency in 2016. Running for re-election, particularly against a prospective opponent as tough as Booker, could put the Christie brand at great risk. If he does not run for re-election, he could make the argument that many of his critics have made over the past year, which is that he has spent far too much time campaigning and not enough time governing, and as a mea culpa, he could say that he wants to spend his last year in office focused like a laser on rebuilding New Jersey’s economy without the constraints of electoral politics.
He would undoubtedly take a significant amount of heat from fellow Republicans, primarily inside New Jersey, but also outside, for all but giving the state’s Governorship back to the Democrats, who would most likely clear the field for Booker to run virtually unopposed against whatever Republican was able to survive what would most certainly be a bloody and divisive primary election between an establishmentarian like the Senate Minority Leader, Tom Kean Jr., and a Tea Party favorite like perennial conservative gadfly, Steven Lonegan. However, Christie would most likely be able to weather whatever temporary storm this decision might bring about when he spends most of 2014 campaigning and fundraising for Republicans running for House and Senate, building up chits for the day in December 2014 or January 2015, when he announces that he is running for President.
However, if Romney is able to reverse the current trends that seem to be leading towards an Obama landslide victory and win in November, Christie would need to put off a Presidential bid until the 2020 cycle, which would probably start sometime after Election Day 2018. Six years are a very long time in politics, especially national politics where the electorate tends to have a shorter attention span than a hyperactive child and Christie would have no choice but to find something to do during that time that would keep his name on the headlines and his face on YouTube.
Unless Christie accepts an offer to be Romney’s Attorney General, a position that does not provide many positive YouTube moments, Christie’s clearest option is to run for re-election, which would be fine for him if Booker decides to pass on a gubernatorial run in favor of a senatorial run. If Booker does not run, then the only Democrats who are well-known and well-liked enough to give Christie a run for his money are State Senator Richard Codey, who is better known throughout the state as Acting Governor Codey from his service in the wake of former Governor Jim McGreevey’s scandal-ridden, short-lived term in office, and United States Senator Bob Menendez, who is not viewed by most insiders as a serious gubernatorial contender, although that could change this November if he is able to get more votes for his re-election campaign than Obama in New Jersey, making a statement about his ability to get out the vote.
As popular and well-respected as Codey is in the state, it is unlikely that he will run for Governor next year even if neither Booker nor Menendez run. Since being ousted from his Senate Presidency by a cabal led by several of the state’s Democratic political machine bosses shortly before these same bosses would enable Chris Christie to defeat former Governor Jon Corzine, creating an alliance that has enabled Christie to govern conservatively with little to no resistance from the Democratic-controlled legislature, Codey has been at odds with the party establishment and would have a very tough time winning a Democratic primary election against a sacrificial lamb candidate like Elizabeth Mayor Chris Bollwage or Assemblyman (and Democratic Party Chairman) John Wisniewski, especially if he is also forced to compete with fellow insurgent, State Senator Barbara Buono, who was ousted from her Majority Leader position two years after the coup that took down Codey.
Buono has made her desire to run for Governor next year much clearer than Codey and if he is unable to convince her that he has a better chance of beating the bosses next June and Christie next November, it is more likely that he will step aside, endorse her, and hope for the best. Regardless of how this internecine warfare shakes itself out, it is unlikely that any Democrat who is not named Booker, Codey, or Menendez has a decent chance of defeating Christie, which brings us back to the Booker question. Will he run next year or won’t he? On the surface, a Booker-Christie matchup in 2013 seems like the most likely scenario as Booker is considered by most observers to be the Democrats’ best hope, while those same observers would be shocked if Christie backed down from a challenge from Booker.
However, the reason why this will most likely not happen is because both Booker and Christie have far too much to lose from an election whose outcome would be very difficult to predict. A Booker loss to Christie would force Booker to run for re-election in Newark, where he is far less popular than he is statewide and nationwide and would be incredibly vulnerable. If he were to lose twice in the span of six months (Newark’s nonpartisan municipal elections are held in May), not only would Booker’s political career be over, but his cache as a talking head on television would be significantly diminished. Conversely, a Christie loss to Booker would make it very hard for him to remain a serious Presidential contender going into the 2020 cycle, particularly since he would be forced to compete with a outgoing Vice President Paul Ryan. It is conceivable, but unlikely, that even on the heels of a hard-fought loss to Booker, Christie would still represent the Republican Party’s best hope to defeat United States Senator Frank Lautenberg (or another Democrat if he retires or loses the primary election) in 2014. A weakened Christie would create a huge opportunity for a feeding frenzy from the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party.
So what can two enemies/friends/frienemies do to simultaneously preserve both of their long-term political ambitions? They will most likely sit down with their good friend, George Norcross, and figure out which path best serves their own interests as well as the interests of the Democratic Party bosses that run most of New Jersey. In fact, it is very possible that this conversation has already taken place and Booker’s coming out party in Charlotte can be taken as a signal that he is going to announce his gubernatorial run shortly after Christie announces that he is not going to run for re-election so that it does not appear as if Christie is running away from a fight with Booker.
Christie will then either follow the path that has already been described above if Obama wins in November or become Romney’s Attorney General if Romney wins. Christie could also decline the appointment and run for United States Senate in 2014, since he would have a better chance of surviving a Tea Party challenge in the primary election and beating Lautenberg or another Democrat in the general election if he is not coming off of a losing campaign the year before. As a Senator (and former Governor) from an otherwise blue state that Christie could claim to have turned purple, Christie would have enough of a stage (compared to that of a Vice President Ryan) to continue to create headlines and YouTube moments for himself, and when the time comes to run against Ryan for the 2020 Republican Presidential nomination, he would be well-positioned to win.
Even if Christie didn’t defeat Ryan in 2020, New Jersey Republicans would probably wait until right before the filing deadline that year before making any decisions about his Senate seat, knowing that any other Republican would have a very hard time keeping it in their party’s hands. Assuming for a moment that Christie is able to win re-election to his Senate seat under these circumstances, if Ryan does not win the Presidency in 2020, Christie would probably be the Republican front-runner in 2024. And even if Ryan did win in 2020, Christie would still be young enough to wait until 2028 (assuming, once again, that he won re-election in 2026). Thus, it could be argued that a 2014 Senate run is as feasible a path for Christie to realize his Presidential ambitions as running for re-election next year.
However, it is just as possible that the current Booker for Governor buzz is a smokescreen, serving to distract rank-and-file Democrats and party operatives, who are chomping at the bit to back someone who they think can beat Christie next year. This prevents insurgents like Buono and Codey from doing what they need to do to organize a campaign that will overcome the institutional advantages that New Jersey’s party establishments have constructed to benefit their preferred candidates and enable an otherwise weak candidate like Bollwage or Wisniewski to defeat a seemingly stronger candidate.
Shortly before Christie announces that he is running for re-election next year, because he wouldn’t want anyone to think that he is running away from a fight with Christie, Booker will announce that he needs to focus more on the city of Newark than state and national politics and is putting his statewide ambitions on hold for at least a year. Once Christie announces that he is running for re-election, Bollwage, Buono, Wisniewski, and possibly others will throw their hats into the ring to take him, the party bosses will pull the strings and push the levers that they have at their disposal, awarding the bulk of the county party lines, which guarantee their chosen candidate a preferential position on the primary election ballot with the rest of the county’s municipal, county, and state candidates, to either Bollwage or Wisniewski, and their chosen sacrificial lamb candidate will most likely defeat Buono, who will not have nearly enough time or other resources to mount an effective insurgency, in a landslide before being slaughtered by Christie in November.
Once it is clear that Christie is going to be New Jersey’s Governor for another four years, Democrats inside and outside of the state are going to urge Senator Lautenberg to announce that he will not be running for re-election, because even his victory would put the seat at risk in the event that the then-90-year-old Senator passed away, which would give Christie the power to name his replacement. Whether or not Lautenberg resists this pressure to retire, Booker will most likely be the Democratic nominee as the party bosses, the DNC, and the DSCC use all of the power at their disposal to help him win the primary election and the general election, where he will be all-but-unopposed. As a United States Senator, Booker will have the opportunity to run for President whenever he chooses. This could be as early as 2016 if Romney wins this November. If Obama wins this November, it is more likely that Booker waits until 2020 (if a Republican wins in 2016) or 2024 (if a Democrat wins in 2016).
It is the unfortunate nature of New Jersey politics that the more we analyze what insiders like Booker, Christie, and Norcross are up to, the more it raises questions about the state of democracy in our state than it answers. Because of the power of political bosses like George Norcross and the cozy relationship between the Democratic and Republican establishments in New Jersey, it is far more likely that we will see Cory Booker and Chris Christie run against one another for President in 2020, 2024, or 2028 than for Governor in 2013.