The Department of Justice is preparing to charge New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez with corruption. Menendez, a Democrat, may not leave office quietly — his term isn’t up until 2018 — but if he does resign, it could present Republican Gov. Chris Christie with an opportunity to get back in the good graces of conservatives statewide and around the country. That’s because Christie would get to choose both the temporary replacement for Menendez and the date of a special election to fill the seat.
Christie could choose a moderate Republican such as state Sen. Tom Kean Jr. or former Rep. Jon Runyan. The former might be especially appealing because Christie has had his run-ins with both Kean Jr. and Tom Kean Sr., who is the godfather of the Republican party in New Jersey.
Of course, any replacement would then need to win a special election to keep the seat. That may seemed far-fetched in a blue state like New Jersey, but Garden State voters have shown a willingness in the last two midterm elections to vote for Republican candidates in federal elections.1 In 2010, the cumulative vote for Republicans running for the House was greater than the cumulative vote for Democrats running for the House. In 2014, Democratic candidates beat Republican candidates by only 2 percentage points.
Indeed, since the 2004 elections, Republican House candidates in New Jersey have lost by an average of 8 percentage points. In the same period, GOP House candidates nationally have lost by 1 percentage point. That’s not a huge difference. Democratic candidates in New Jersey tend to be favorites, but a respectable Republican candidate could win in a GOP-leaning election cycle. Tom Kean Jr. only lost to Menendez in the 2006 Senate race by 9.3 percentage points, when Democrats were winning the national House vote by 8 percentage points.
Christie could further help the Republican candidate by ensuring that a special election doesn’t coincide with the presidential election in 2016, when Democratic turnout is likely to be higher. New Jersey laws give Christie pretty broad discretion on when to schedule the special election.
Now, I’m not saying that Christie would all of sudden become a savior to Republicans. Nor would the Republican candidate be considered a favorite. But if Menendez did step down, he’d give Christie a chance to give Republicans something they haven’t had in over 40 years: a winning Republican Senate candidate in New Jersey.