The death of Senator Frank R. Lautenberg, Democrat of New Jersey, creates a confusing electoral situation in the state. There are conflicting interpretations of exactly what New Jersey’s law requires — whether a special election should be held this November, when Gov. Chris Christie will be up for re-election, or in November 2014, when Mr. Lautenberg’s term was set to expire. In the interim, Mr. Christie, a Republican, has the option of appointing a senator, but he is not required to do so.
Though Mr. Christie’s decision could have some implications for how is perceived as a potential 2016 presidential candidate, it may not have much effect on who eventually wins the election for Mr. Lautenberg’s seat.
In 2008, I studied other cases over the past 50 years in which an interim appointment had been made to fill a Senate vacancy. The appointees did not have a very high electoral success rate:
Senators appointed to fill midterm vacancies have fared rather poorly when it came time for the voters to give them a verdict. Over the past 25 Congresses, there have been, by my count, 49 senators who were selected by gubernatorial appointment in midterm (this excludes cases where a senator-elect acceded to office a few days early to gain seniority on his colleagues, a once-common courtesy that is becoming less so). Of those 49 senators, only 19 — fewer than 40 percent — won their subsequent special election. Meanwhile:
* 13 of the 49 (27%) ran for office, but were defeated in the general election;
* 7 of the 49 (14%) ran for office, but were defeated in the primary;
* 10 of the 49 (20%) chose not to seek a permanent term (including one who was prohibited by state law from doing so).
These numbers are far below the usual benchmarks for incumbent senators. Since 1990, about 81 percent of incumbent senators have sought re-election, and among those who have sought it, 88 percent have won it. By contrast, among the 80 percent of gubernatorial appointees since 1956 who chose to seek re-election, only 49 percent survived both the primary and the general election.
Note that the appointed senators performed considerably worse than regular incumbents at every stage of the process. They were less likely to run for a regular term, more likely to receive a primary challenge if they did run and more likely to lose the general election if they survived the primary.
It may be best to treat elections involving an appointed senator as open-seat races, rather than those in which incumbents are running. (This is, in fact, how we handle such cases in our Senate forecasting model.) While these appointed senators enjoy some of the benefits of incumbency, like name recognition and fund-raising ability, they usually lack the deterrent effect — that is, the tendency to prevent strong challengers from running — that most incumbent senators have. In addition, they often lack a track record: one of the reasons incumbency has predictive power is that it tells us, if nothing else, that the senator has been elected before by a plurality of the state’s voters. That usually isn’t true in the case of appointees.
With that said, this might be a case in which even modest electoral benefits would be better than nothing for Republicans (assuming Mr. Christie appointed someone from his own party). As Sean Trende of RealClearPolitics notes, Republicans have had trouble identifying viable candidates to run for the seat in 2014. Perhaps Mr. Christie can persuade one of the party’s stronger candidates to run.
If Mr. Christie wants to maximize the G.O.P.’s chances of holding on to the seat, the path is fairly straightforward. He would want to appoint a moderate Republican who had held a prominent elected office before, who could raise money quickly and who could scale up to the effort that a statewide campaign would require. My 2008 study found that well-qualified appointees performed much better than the others:
By contrast, appointees who had significant recent experience as legislators performed fairly well. In seven of the 49 cases, the appointee was a sitting member of the House of Representatives; six of the seven won re-election. Seven others were sitting members of their state legislatures at the time of their appointment; five of those seven won re-election.
Mr. Christie might have decent choices from New Jersey’s list of current United States representatives. Six of the state’s 12 representatives are Republicans, and most of those Republicans are quite moderate.
In particular, Mr. Christie could appoint one of the two Republican representatives — Frank LoBiondo of the Second Congressional District and Jon Runyan of the Third — who won re-election last year in districts carried by President Obama. Mr. Runyan had the better fund-raising performance last year, bringing in $2.1 million for his campaign, compared with $1.6 million for Mr. LoBiondo.
Because of New Jersey’s strong Democratic lean, the appointee would still probably be the underdog against Mayor Cory Booker of Newark or whomever the Democrats nominated. But someone like Mr. Runyan would stand a fighting chance, whereas an underqualified nominee or a conservative Republican would most likely be added to the long list of Senate appointees who failed at the ballot box.