Supreme Court nominees present political chess game

Thursday’s Senate hearing on Gov. Chris Christie’s two Supreme Court nominees has set off a political chess game between the governor and Democrats in the legislature.

Democrats, seeing an opening in the governor’s usually seamless armor signaled Wednesday that they may not be willing to play ball with Christie on at least one of the nominees, Phil Kwon, who would be the first Asian ever to sit on the court.  Kwon has faced questions about a financial settlement involving his mother since the story broke last month and despite the governor’s best efforts  could see his nomination become the victim of a two-year power struggle between Democrats and the front office.

A report in the Star Ledger confirmed by PolitickerNJ said Kwon is one vote shy of the seven needed to pass though the committee.  Committee members insist they’re open minded, but the leak may indicate that Democrats are seizing on the opportunity to take what they believe is a rare open shot at the governor, who has been exceedingly successful during his two plus years in office at dodging Democrats’ body blows.

Kwon presents an opening, owing to his financial issue, which Christie said he was aware of when he nominated the former Assistant U.S. Attorney, but which took nearly everyone else by surprise.  Blocking Kwon’s nomination could give Democrats a powerful story line.

The governor insists the issue was resolved by federal law enforcement and had nothing to do with Kwon, but Democrats have continued to raise red flags.

Politically, blocking Kwon is seen by some caucus insiders as a “free play” that would cost the Democrats little in the way of capital because the opening is there and would give committee members an “out” to explain their no votes. 

Democrats also may view the hearing as an opportunity to appease their base, some of whom were alienated during last year’s pension and benefits battle.  Earlier this week, more than two dozen progressive groups, including labor unions, came out against the governor’s nominees and demanded the governor nominate a true independent to the court to maintain the partisan balance.

Dropping Kwon from consideration would play well and show Democratic loyalists the party has not been co-opted.

But Christie has shown himself to be politically adroit and rarely enters battles he can’t win.  Political watchers and pundits Wednesday speculated the governor may have a stacked deck in the form of a committee member or two willing to deal.

Several sources said Wednesday that committee-member Sen. Brian Stack was the lone Democrat to be counted on for a yes vote on Kwon.  With five Republicans on the committee, Christie would need to turn just one more Democrat to move his man forward.  With strong ties to Democratic power brokers some politicos speculated the governor could leverage his way to victory.

But the make-up of the committee does not play to Christie’s allies.  With the exception of Stack and Sen. Nia Gill of Essex, none of the Democrats on the committee represent portions of the state controlled by Christie’s Democratic friends.  What’s more, the committee is populated by some of the more progressive members of the Democratic caucus, who may value a bloody nose for the governor above any deal they might make.

But Republicans say Democrats may be woefully underestimating the governor. Again.

Not one to lie down in the face of a fight, Christie has been known to lash out when challenged.  Last year’s budget clash saw Democrats challenge the governor by passing their own budget instead of Christie’s only to see the governor take a hack saw to the plan, cutting minute programs he knew to be close to their hearts, which some labeled payback for uprising.

In the words of one Republican, “They haven’t learned yet what they are dealing with?”

On the credit side of Christie’s ledger, as always, is the massive bully pulpit he controls and has learned to exploit over the years.  Christie commands a national stage and is a master at crafting – and controlling – the message of the day.

Tagging Democrats with the obstructionist label and hammering the point home week after week would likely blunt any damage he might suffer from Kwon’s demise.  Democrats tipped their hand with the leak of the vote count and could have opened the door for Christie to accuse them of orchestrating the vote before the committee members even had the chance to hear from the nominee.

Dropping Kwon, who by most accounts is an accomplished attorney, could also play into Christie’s “Trenton business as usual” storyline and in the end become a noose around the Democratic legislature’s neck.

The hearings promise to bring high drama but will they bring any surprises?

“We’ll see in the next 12 hours,” said Montclair State Political Science Professor Brigid Harrison. “If Christie is able to get out in front on this and start painting them with the brush of obstructionism – or if he just asks Norcross or whomever to make sure people fall in line, there is a possibility that they won’t come up with the votes to block his nominees. But I think whatever happens he is typically two moves ahead of them. Even if they manage to win this small battle it will not necessarily be indicative of how the war is going.”

Supreme Court nominees present political chess game