By the end of this first week back, a Capitol that’s emotionally spent from the Syria debate and still anxious about a budget impasse will be sorely in need of a diversion.
Ideally, it will combine a generous portion of campaign maneuvering, plenty of tart-tongued rhetoric and a bit of insight for those already playing the parlor game of handicapping the next presidential race.
Fortunately, enervated lawmakers and aides need to look no farther than 210 miles up the road, to a banquet hall in the middlebrow New Jersey suburb of Clark. On Friday, this will be the site of the next installment in the feud that’s been captivating the attention of the political class all summer — even though one of the combatants has wagered he’ll win this round by staying away.
Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul has committed to being there, for the stated reason of headlining a fundraiser for Steve Lonegan, the sacrificial GOP lamb in the special election that’s going to send Cory Booker to the Senate.
Gov. Chris Christie just as definitely won’t be there, for the stated reason that it’s his wife’s 50th birthday and he’s got long-standing plans to whisk her to an undisclosed location for a long weekend.
Of course, the motives are more complicated than that, for both Kentucky’s junior senator and New Jersey’s about-to-win-a-second-term chief executive.
The two may be about as ideologically far apart as it gets in today’s Republican Party leadership, and neither may have the elasticity required to secure the 2016 nomination on the right and then prevail in the general election from the center.
But both Paul and Christie have this much in common:
- They are practiced political plotters.
- Both have made an electoral virtue of plain-spokenness.
- Each sees benefit in making a foil out of the other guy.
- Both have decided they can color the Garden State red on the electoral map for the first time in a quarter-century.
By happy coincidence, Paul will get extra attention in the nation’s No. 1 media market right after he assumes a prominent role on the Senate floor opposing authority for a military strike on Syria. The generally hawkish Christie has uncharacteristically decided to avoid that debate altogether. (A dispute over national security, in which Christie called Paul’s views “very dangerous,” was what started their series of spats earlier in the summer.)
What’s more, raising the profile of Lonegan could help Paul achieve the objective of destabilizing Christie whenever possible.
The governor is pushing to run up his margin of victory against Democratic state Sen. Barbara Buono, hoping it will cement his national standing among donors, party playmakers and even some conservative primary voters. He wants to show them he can be the popular-in-the-blue-and-purple-states candidate they’ll need to win back the White House.
Of course, that goal won’t be made easier if independents are reminded that the New Jersey GOP is also home to Lonegan, a combustible social conservative and tea party favorite.
While Christie has endorsed his party’s Senate nominee, the two are not allies in any way: The former mayor of suburban Bogota (who also headed the state chapter of the Koch brothers’ super PAC, Americans for Prosperity), Lonegan ran a combative and competitive primary against Christie four years ago. And the governor has a friendly relationship with Booker, whose cruise toward the Senate has been complicated just a bit by the innuendos (coming from Lonegan) about his sexuality.
That’s one reason being the most prominently absent guest at the Lonegan rally makes total sense for Christie.
Keeping his distance from Paul also reinforces the notion — very popular in post-Superstorm Sandy New Jersey and, the governor hopes, sell-able nationwide — that Paul's brand of small-government conservatism is both unrealistic and inappropriate in a country where big-time calamities and major national and international challenges demand a robust federal response.
Staying away also prevents Christie from leaving any impression he’s forgiven a rival who labeled him “king of bacon” for seeking so much disaster relief for the state.
“In a choice between Mary Pat Christie and Rand Paul, it’s no choice for me, so I’ll be with Mary Pat,” he told reporters last week — making sure video of the verbal shiv was posted on his official gubernatorial website. It’s the second time this summer that Christie publicly stood up Paul, having said he was much too busy in July to accept the senator’s invitation to come down to Washington so they might “kiss and make up” over a beer.
New Jersey has long been a financial force in national politics: The $19.5 million its residents gave to 2012 candidates was topped by only seven other states. But it hasn’t been a true tossup since Bill Clinton’s narrow victory there in 1992. In the five elections since then, the Democratic presidential margin has averaged almost 15 points.
And the state hasn’t produced any presidential contenders, let alone nominees, in the century since Woodrow Wilson took office.
Christie plans to change those patterns next time. Paul has very different plans. Whether either plot works out, the Jersey resurgence looks to continue. Booker’s 51st birthday is in 2020.