Democrats might consider an insurance policy on their U.S. Senators

Imagine this: it’s 2010, and Chris Christie has just been inaugurated as New Jersey’s new Republican Governor after defeating Jon Corzine in his reelection bid. Meanwhile in Washington, the United States Senate remains in Democrats’ tenuous grasp, with a one-seat majority.

Suddenly, one of New Jersey’s two Democratic Senators falls ill and steps down — control of the Senate hangs in the balance. Should Governor Christie be required to appoint a Democrat as the Senator’s interim replacement, or should he be able to appoint anyone he wants, regardless of party affiliation?

Currently, state law would allow the Governor to appoint a Senator of his or her choice.

While few people want to speculate on a Senator’s illness or death, it’s a question that New Jersey Democrats may want to look into if they’re going to re-elect 83 1/2-year-old Frank Lautenberg — who, according to an actuarial timetable from the Social Security Administration, can be expected to live just 5.29 years after he turns 85 during the first month of his next term.

Similar events have transpired recently in other states. Tim Johnson, a Democratic Senator from South Dakota, suffered a brain hemorrhage in December. He is expected to return the Senate in the fall after nearly a year of physical therapy to regain his speech and mobility.

Had he stepped down, he would have likely been replaced by a Republican appointed by GOP Governor Mike Rounds. That switch would have given Republicans control of the U.S, Senate.

On the other hand, after the death of Republican Senator Craig Thomas, Wyoming state law required Democratic Governor Dave Freudenthal to appoint a Republican to the seat.

Four states require that the Governor appoint an interim Senator from the same party as the previous one: Wyoming, Alaska, Hawaii and Utah.

Some New Jersey legislators think New Jersey should do the same.

Assembly Speaker Joe Roberts said that forcing the Governor to select a Senator from the party that won the seat is more consistent with the way the state already functions, and that voters often prefer one party for Governor and another for national representation — something a new system for appointing Senators would be much more sensitive to. Not to mention the potential for a Governor exploiting the appointment for political gain.

“The mischief making opportunities are extraordinary,” said Roberts.

“It should be filled by the party that held the seat last,” said Republican Assemblyman John Rooney, who authored a 1986 amendment to the state constitution that did the same on a local level, eliminating special elections for legislative vacancies in favor of having county committees appoint interim legislators.

Rooney acknowledged that this particular situation would not be advantageous to Republicans, but said it would ultimately be fair to both parties.

“It should be the same as the municipal and legislative vacancy acts, just to conform,” added Rooney.

State Sen. Joseph Vitale has personal experience with the law Rooney authored, having been appointed as the interim (and unsalaried) Mayor of Woodbridge for four months after its Democratic Mayor died of cancer. He thinks that applying the same standard to a U.S. Senate seat makes sense.

“It would seem to me that New Jersey and all other states ought to have a law like Wyoming’s” said Vitale.

In New Jersey, Democrats have not lost a U.S. Senate race since 1972.

A potential downside to the current system could be a sick Senator who decides to stay in office for fear of being replaced by a member of the opposite party. When Karl Mundt, a Republican U.S. Senator from South Dakota, suffered a stroke in late 1969, he refused to resign because a Democratic Governor would have appointed a Democrat to his seat. Mundt remained in the Senate until his term expired in January, 1973, without ever returning to his Senate duties.

“You may have a non-functional senator staying in place for fear of a partisan change,” said David Rebovich, managing director of the Rider University Institute for New Jersey Politics.

There’s also the potential that, if Democrats did try reform the system, Republicans could seize on Lautenberg’s age as a campaign issue. After all, a recent Quinnipiac University poll did show that 54 percent of New Jerseyans consider him “”too old to effectively serve another six-year term as U.S. Senator.”

Assemblyman Michael Panter, a Monmouth County Democrat, thinks reforming the system is a good idea. Appointing a member of the same party until the next general election more accurately reflects the will of the electorate, it does not allow a governor of any party to exploit a dire situation for political gain, and that it can help avoid situations like the nightmare in Minnesota, when Sen. Paul Wellstone died and was replaced by Dean Barkley.. Barkley, a failed Senate candidate from Gov. Jesse Ventura's Independence Party, got just 7% of the statewide vote in the previous election.

“I think New Jersey could avoid a really dangerous situation,” said Panter.

Democratic Assemblyman Reed Gusciora would support reforming the system, he said, but wouldn’t even entertain the idea of Frank Lautenberg not serving another full term.

“I don’t think of that, and I think Senator Lautenberg has served us well and I would operate under the assumption that he’ll be fit to serve another six years and New Jersey will be better for it,” said the veteran legislator from Princeton.

There are some potential pitfalls to the idea. If a Republican governor has to pick a Democrat, he may choose someone who happens to be registered as a Democrat but who’s much more in line with conservative principles. That problem can easily be avoided by a state party committee choosing three candidates for the governor to pick, as they do in Wyoming. But some observers aren’t thrilled with that idea.

Ross K. Baker, a Professor of Political Science at Rutgers University and author of House and Senate, said that a governor is unlikely to make an unpopular choice for fear of facing the wrath of the electorate, who will remember a slight and punish him and his party for it.

“Frankly the idea of all of the members of the democratic state committee together and arguing over somebody doesn’t seem to be a very productive thing,” said Baker. “And the Governor can take responsibility. If this person turns out to be a disaster, the governor is accountable. It’s harder to trace accountability to a group of party officials.”

When Sen. Harrison William, a Democrat, resigned in 1982 following his criminal conviction, Republican Gov. Thomas Kean appointed a caretaker Senator, Wall Streeter Nicholas Brady. Republicans were in the midst of a contested Senate primary, and by prior agreement, Brady served only until the new Senator was elected eight months later.

But the issue is probably not likely to arise here in New Jersey very soon, said Ingrid Reed, director of The Eagleton Institute’s New Jersey Project. It’s difficult for Democrats to contemplate something that, no matter how abstractly they discuss it, will always come back to one issue: Frank Lautenberg’s age.

“It doesn’t appear you can discuss it abstractly,” said Reed. “It always brings up the Lautenberg issue.”

Democrats might consider an insurance policy on their U.S. Senators