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A Look Ahead To The Future Of The GOP


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Chris Christie calls a very special election in Jersey. Missouri 8th voters call for Jason Smith, and a House committee chair calls out the White House spokesman. It's Wednesday and time for a...


CONAN: Edition of the Political Junkie.

PRESIDENT RONALD REAGAN: There you go again.

VICE PRESIDENT WALTER MONDALE: When I hear your new ideas, I'm reminded of that ad: Where's the beef?

SENATOR BARRY GOLDWATER: Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.

SENATOR LLOYD BENTSEN: Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy.

PRESIDENT RICHARD NIXON: You don't have Nixon to kick around anymore.

SARAH PALIN: Lipstick.


PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: But I'm the decider.


CONAN: Every Wednesday, Political Junkie Ken Rudin joins us to review the week in politics. This week, actual votes in a special House election in the Show Me State; pandemonium as the governor in the Garden State says he doesn't care about the cost of a special Senate election to replace the late Frank Lautenberg; Democratic Congressman Joe Garcia dangles in a ballot fraud scandal in Miami; the first lady asks a heckler to make her day; a former Miss America enters the congressional competition in Illinois; and on Friday, Michigan Representative John Dingell becomes the longest serving member of Congress in American history.

In a few minutes, former Republican Party chair Michael Steele joins us here to talk about the future of the GOP. We'll also focus on the political gyrations in Jersey. But first, Political Junkie Ken Rudin joins us, as usual, here in Studio 42, and as usual we begin with a trivia question. Hey, Ken.

KEN RUDIN, BYLINE: Hi, Neal. Well, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is expected to name a Republican to fill the Senate seat left vacant by the death of Frank Lautenberg.

CONAN: A Democrat.

RUDIN: A Democrat, exactly. So the question is: Who was the last senator to die in office and be immediately replaced by someone of a different party?

CONAN: So if you think you know the answer to this week's Political Junkie trivia question, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. The last senator to die in office and be replaced by a senator of a different party, immediately named that way - again, 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. The winner, of course, gets that fabulous Political Junkie no-prize button and a free Political Junkie t-shirt.

So Ken, well, Frank Lautenberg, before we get on to the politics of what's going to come after, a funeral service held today in Manhattan at a synagogue, as Vice President Biden, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and of course Bob Menendez and Governor Christie all there to remember a man who came - served five times - elected five times to the United States Senate.

RUDIN: Yes, he's the longest serving senator in New Jersey history. And he may not be one of the most well - best-known senators in the country, but he did have an impact even though much of what he fought for wasn't - didn't come to fruition. And I'm thinking of course of gun control laws. He was a big person on eliminating guns, the online, you know...

CONAN: Sale of guns.

RUDIN: Sale of guns and things like that. And matter of fact, on his deathbed a month ago, he came to the Senate to vote for that bill. But he was big on, like he was instrumental on stopping of smoking on airplanes. He was a strong advocate of tougher drunk driving laws and environmental protection laws.

CONAN: Raised the drinking age in New Jersey.

RUDIN: Exactly, which is one reason I voted against him. But no, but he was, you know, around a long time. He was cantankerous.

CONAN: Mass transit advocate as well.

RUDIN: He was, absolutely, big on Amtrak. You know, he was a fighter and for good and for bad. But speaking of another fighter, Chris Christie of course is going to have to decide whom to succeed - who to replace him with as a temporary appointment.

CONAN: And the fact that Frank Lautenberg had to come off literally his deathbed to cast a vote in a couple of important - that suggests how critical this one senatorial vote is.

RUDIN: That's exactly right, and matter of fact, when Chris Christie announced that there would be a special election this year, one of the few Democrats to say that's great news is Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader from Nevada, who said, look, I need all the votes I can get because there may be something on immigration, there may be something on perhaps changing the filibuster rule. Whatever it is, I need a vote, and of course the Democrats are favored to win in New Jersey, which has not elected a Republican to the Senate since 1972.

CONAN: So again, Chris Christie is expected to nominate a Republican, and that's this week's trivia question, but in any case, that will switch one vote over to the Republican side until October 18th at least; that's when the special election has been...

RUDIN: Right, October 16th, which is very strange. It's a Wednesday, which is very bizarre. We'll talk about this later, but a lot of people said, well, why not have the election on November 5th? Of course Governor Christie's argument was that I want somebody replaced - somebody in the Senate as soon as possible, so it's going to be August - October 16th rather than 20 days later.

CONAN: And you mentioned August. That's when the primary...

RUDIN: Right, August 13th.

CONAN: ...is going to be for both parties, and, well, much more about the New Jersey election later in the program. So stay tuned for that. In the meantime, actual votes. Well, there were actually votes yesterday in New Jersey.

RUDIN: There were. Actually, officially - we've talked about this for a long time, but Governor Chris Christie and Democratic challenger Barbara Buono, who is a state senator, are now the official respective Republican and Democratic nominees for governor. They won their primaries. But there was also a special election yesterday in Missouri, in southeast Missouri, in the 8th congressional district.

That's where Jason Smith, who is a state representative, Mr. Smith does go to Washington. He won Jo Ann Emerson's vacated House seat, 68 percent of the vote, a solid, very conservative district, big win for the Republicans.

CONAN: And in the meantime, there is - well, the last election may turn out to be special for Joe Garcia, the Democrat from Miami. As it turns out, his office is involved in a voter fraud.

RUDIN: Well, what happened, I mean what's ironic about this is that Joe Garcia came to Congress in 2012 when his Republican opponent, David Rivera, also had his ethics problems, and Joe Garcia portrayed himself as above, you know...

CONAN: Mr. Clean.

RUDIN: Mr. Clean, exactly. Well, his chief of staff was forced to resign. We don't know how much further it goes, but in 2012, during the Democratic primary in that district, his campaign submitted hundreds of fraudulent absentee ballot requests in the primary, and of course...

CONAN: These are felonies. Every single one of those is a felony.

RUDIN: And the chief of staff - and his top political strategist, the same person, took the fall, and we'll see how far that goes.

CONAN: And a former Miss America will be running for Congress in Illinois. Here she comes.

RUDIN: Here she comes, Erika Harold, who was Miss America in 2003, she's actually a very conservative Republican. She's going to challenge freshman Congressman Rodney Davis. She actually wanted - when the Republican congressman resigned in 2012, she wanted to be picked as the Republican nominee. They went to somebody else, and so she says, OK, I'm going to challenge him in the primary next March.

CONAN: So you can expect all kinds of jokes about, well, walking, sweeps - anyway, I'm sure she wants world peace.

RUDIN: Well, no, I don't know if she wants world peace. She's very, very conservative, thinks that Rodney Davis is too moderate, and of course the Democrats love the fact that these two Republicans are battling it out for the primary.

CONAN: Speaking of conservative Republican congresswoman, Michele Bachmann of course, left, decided not to run for re-election and swore as she made her announcement it was not because she was afraid of her Democratic rival, whom she barely eked out a victory over last time around. Well, it turns out her former Democratic rival is not going to run either.

RUDIN: Well, I think Jim Graves, who as you say came very close to beating Michele Bachmann in 2012, he - what he had going for him was Michele Bachmann was his opponent. Once she pulled out of the race, Jim Graves in this pretty conservative Republican district, Mitt Romney got 56 percent of the vote there, he said, well, I'm not running anymore.


CONAN: Not going to spend my money on this race.

RUDIN: Exactly because I mean obviously his best chance, his best hope, was having to run against Bachmann again, and that's not going to happen.

CONAN: In the meantime, we have some people on the line who think they know the answer to this week's trivia question, and that is the last United States senator to die in office and be replaced by a member of the opposition party.

RUDIN: A different party.

CONAN: A different party, somebody who's named to replace as a temporary - by a governor. So 800-989-8255. Email is talk@npr.org. Bill is on the line with us from Williamsburg in Virginia.

BILL: Yes, actually I'd like to change my original response. I think it's Paul Wellstone, who was a Democrat replaced by Dean Barkley, who was an independent out of Minnesota.

RUDIN: Well, first of all, tell me what was your original answer. Your revised answer is the correct answer.

CONAN: Ding, ding, ding.

RUDIN: Exactly. Governor Jesse Ventura, who was a Reform Party candidate, named one of his top people, Dean Barkley, after Paul Wellstone's death in 2002.

CONAN: And we have an email entry that came in at the same time from John Hogan, who also knew it was Paul Wellstone, who died of course in a plane crash.

RUDIN: So we just shortened our show today by 20 minutes.


BILL: Sorry about that.

CONAN: That's all right. Stay on the line, and we'll collect your particulars and be sending you a Political Junkie T-shirt for absolutely no price whatsoever and that fabulous no-prize button as well, in exchange for a promise of a digital picture of yourself wearing said same products so we can post it on our wall of shame.

BILL: Will do, and I just want to say you will be sorely missed.

CONAN: Oh, thanks very much. Appreciate it. In the meantime, Ken, we do have some other news. As we mentioned, John Dingell about to become the longest serving member of - in Congress, in history.

RUDIN: That's right, on Friday it'll be 57 years, five months and 26 days since he was first elected in a December 1955 special election to succeed his late father, John Dingell, Sr.

CONAN: Another 22 years before that.

RUDIN: And Dingell replaces Robert Byrd as the longest serving member of Congress in history. And as long as we're talking about anniversaries, I always say this, but June 5 is the anniversary, the 45th anniversary, of the shooting of Robert Kennedy just hours after he declared victory in California. Every time I think of June 5, I think of that awful day in 1968.

CONAN: There is a shakeup at the White House, and Tom Donilon is out as the president's national security advisor. Susan Rice, who had hoped to go to Foggy Bottom, goes to Pennsylvania Avenue instead.

RUDIN: Yes, and the bitter news for the Republicans is that you don't - there's no Senate confirmation vote for national security advisor. So Susan Rice will move closer to the president without Senate confirmation.

CONAN: In the meantime, we saw how President Obama reacted to a heckler just the other day. His wife was presented with a heckler just last night. This is what she had to say.


MICHELLE OBAMA: One of the things I - one of the things that I don't do well is this.

CONAN: She then descended from the stage, confronted the heckler and said, look, either you take the mic and I leave, or I stay and you leave.

RUDIN: Yeah, this is a - was a pro-gay rights protestor who said that the president was not doing enough for gay rights, and Michelle Obama of course made her little drama thing. And everybody said no, no, we want you, and the protestor was escorted out of this private home fundraiser.

CONAN: And the president challenged congressional Republicans in the Senate by naming three, count them three, nominees to the D.C. Court of Appeals yesterday.

RUDIN: Right, there are three vacancies, and of course right now currently there are four submitted by Democratic presidents, four by Republican presidents. And there are three vacancies. So of course a lot of Republicans say, well, you know, we don't need any of these extra judges because they don't have that much of a heavy court load.

But basically President Obama is daring the Republicans to oppose these three...

CONAN: And maybe set up a confrontation on the filibuster.

RUDIN: Absolutely, and of the three, there are two women and one African-American. So that'll be very interesting to see.

CONAN: And it'll be interesting to see. None of them may be - unless the filibuster rule has changed, none of them may be confirmed.

RUDIN: Well, Republicans also know that the D.C. court also is often the stepping stone to the United States Supreme Court, and of course they're very nervous about that, vacancies on the Supreme Court.

CONAN: Ken Rudin will of course stay with us; he's the Political Junkie and joins us each week here in Studio 42. In just a minute, former RNC head Michael Steele will join us; he'll take a look ahead at the future of the GOP. We want to hear from Republicans in blue state. How can the party turn things around where you live? 800-989-8255 is the phone number. You can send us an email as well, that's talk@npr.org. We'll be right back. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan. It's Wednesday, political junkie day. Ken Rudin is with us, as usual. Ken, was there a ScuttleButton winner this week?

RUDIN: My goodness, there absolutely was, Neal, thank you for asking. Thank you for asking, yes there absolutely was. There were three buttons in the puzzle. There was a Bill Jefferson for governor of Louisiana button; there was a button that said hair loss, ask me, I have no idea what that meant; and there was another one that said wings for America with a picture of - the name of Wilkie on a plane.

So when you add the three, you get Jefferson Hairplane.

CONAN: Jefferson Airplane. What was the occasion for...?

RUDIN: Well, I don't know, go ask Alice, I don't know. But anyway, the point is Walt Taylor of Ijamsville, Ijamsville, Maryland, near Frederick, is the winner.

CONAN: And he will get of course that free political junkie T-shirt and the political junkie winner button.

RUDIN: Worth every penny.

CONAN: And is there a new column out there?

RUDIN: There is a new column about the New Jersey, the controversy in New Jersey.

CONAN: And if you want to see any of that and the new...

RUDIN: And a new ScuttleButton puzzle.

CONAN: You can go to npr.org/junkie. As part of our Looking Ahead series, we look ahead now to the future of the political parties. A couple or three weeks ago we spoke with former Democratic Party chair Howard Dean. Today a look at the Republican Party. We want to hear from Republicans in blue states. How do you think the party can turn things around where you live? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org.

Michael Steele is former chair of the Republican National Committee, joins us here in Studio 42. Nice to have you back on TALK OF THE NATION.

MICHAEL STEELE: It's good to see you, gentlemen, how's it going?

CONAN: Very well.


CONAN: I have to begin by asking you: What do you think of Chris Christie's decision?

STEELE: Well, you know, it's calculated, very much so it's calculated. I think as national Republicans have expressed they're annoyed, to put it politely...

CONAN: They would have gotten their Republican...

STEELE: Well, because you would have had a Republican senator, and it would have given an opportunity for the Republican Party to compete for statewide, you know, U.S. Senate seat this fall. They don't have that opportunity now. Cory Booker will have a clean shot for that seat with very little interference to speak of. And that's frustrating, and from that standpoint it is a little bit difficult to accept the decision.

But I understood where Christie was coming from. He's also looking at the opportunity of having the people make this choice, and that does well for him, quite honestly. It sort of - it's a continuation of his brand, as Christie, as Governor Christie and as a political figure of being an independent thinker. And I think that he'll weather it OK.

You know, he'll get some noise from the right on it, obviously, because again we lose that opportunity to compete for a seat.


RUDIN: Of course by having the special Senate election in October, he won't have Cory Booker on the ballot in November, and that helps Christie: one, with a big landslide; and two, help win control, keep control of the state legislature.

CONAN: Down-ticket.

STEELE: Well, let me address that. I'm a little bit, after 30 years of this game, really kind of annoyed with some of the Republicans thinking that sort of buys into this mindset - oh, we can't allow, you know, to drive out that Democrat vote, particularly the black vote, you know, with Cory Booker on the ticket. You know, if you do your job, and he's done his job, if you've laid out your issues in your quest as a leader in the state, and he's done that, the people will recognize that.

So he's going to get whatever vote he's going to get no matter who comes to the polls. You know, one more person comes to the poll because Cory Booker is now on the ballot in November versus being on the ballot in October: A, that's a good thing, people coming out to vote; and B, why do we automatically assume that that is not going to be a vote for Chris Christie, and that somehow in November with both these men on the ballot, you know, Booker and Christie, that all of a sudden Christie is going to get 69 percent of the vote as opposed to 70 percent of the vote.

It just bugs me with that mindset. You do your job, you do it well, the voters will be there for you. And I think it's hard to justify asking the voters to vote in October and then turn around two and a half, three weeks later and go back to the polls and vote again not only politically but also, most importantly, financially.

CONAN: Yeah, $24 million is the estimate of the cost of the primary and the special election. In the meantime, let's look to the state of Maryland, where we're told you're looking at a run for governor in that state.

STEELE: Yeah, this has gotten a lot more hype than I think it should, quite honestly. You know, for me this is really a flyover, kind of looking at the opportunity. It's an open seat. So you look at open seats. And having served as lieutenant governor of the state, I knew the state well. You know, we did some good things while I was working with Bob Ehrlich; I thought was an incredibly good governor, should have been re-elected to that office particularly given what we got.

CONAN: So did he, twice.

STEELE: So did he, twice. But yeah, I'll take a look at it. There's no formal campaign structure put in place. I've talked with all the other Republican potential candidates. Some announced already like my buddy David Craig, and told him very honestly, I'm going to look, I'll make a decision come the fall.

CONAN: Well, we asked callers what do you as Republicans in a blue state do, have to do, to win in that state? And that's you. In Maryland, it's about as blue a state as you're going to find.

STEELE: It's about as blue a state as you're going to find, particularly given the political track it's been on over the last seven or so years. And there's a way which I think Republicans in blue states do win, and I always say it: Just be yourself. Our values, our ideas, our principles align with voters when we lay them out for them in an open, honest way, without trying to cherry-pick or make them like us.

You know, Republicans should run in the communities as they find them, not as you want them to be or think they are. And the moment you sort of get past that pretense and that falsehood that, you know, everybody, you know, is with you because they're with the other guy, you can have a conversation about the things that matter. You can have a conversation about the things that matter to people, as opposed to matter to your party.

And I think that we - you know, our success, Ehrlich and Steele in 2002, and certainly, you know, what we were able to do at the national level in 2010 in blue states where we did win some seats, is to have that kind of a conversation.

RUDIN: But it seems like you're ignoring the fact that the numbers for the Republicans nationwide are not doing well. I mean not that anybody's doing well numbers-wise, but the Republicans are not, and of course Bob Dole made headlines a few weeks ago by saying that nobody, like Bob Dole, Richard Nixon, even Ronald Reagan, couldn't win in a Republican Party like this, given the fact that it has moved so much to the right.

STEELE: Very true. I'm not ignoring that fact at all. In fact, I embrace what Bob Dole said, and I've been saying it most of my political life. And it's certainly something that was part of my conversation as national chairman, which is why I annoyed so many people in the party, because I refused to play ball the way they want to play ball.

The old way doesn't work. The old strategies don't work. I think Reince Priebus proved that. Surprisingly, he didn't learn from me when I was chairman that you can't go back to the old model, and you cannot have a strategy that has a conversation with a 21-year-old, you know, African-American entrepreneur at the same time you're having that conversation with a 35-year-old mother, white mother of two.

So, you know, the reality is the reality. You're not going to change that. So adapting, recognizing that those core ideas of individual liberty, opportunity, responsibility, freedom, matter to people. Now how they translate that in their everyday life is up to them, but we can lay out some broad policy views and principles that they can then pull into their lives and say, oh, yeah, I like the idea of, you know, having the freedom to choose where to send my kids to school and what that means for me as a parent, how that empowers me as a parent, versus being stuck with the old model of having to go to the failing school in the neighborhood because it's in the neighborhood, and I live in that district.

So those are the types of opportunities and choices that I think are valuable to voters that I think the party needs to talk about and not losing sight of the fact that you raised about the numbers. In fact, I think that's the incentive to get off of the old stick and recognize the new opportunities.

CONAN: Let's get some callers in on the conversations. We want to hear from Republicans in blue states. What does the party need to do where you live to, well, start winning? 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. Kerry's(ph) on the line with us from Denver.

KERRY: Hi there. Yeah, I'd love to hear just you guys' opinion on the kind of up and coming generation of politicians that maybe aren't so political. You know, as a younger Republican, you know, I have a little bit of trust issue with some of the older, you know, old guard, if you will.

STEELE: So do I.

KERRY: And specifically the GOP, right, so conservative, you know, and I'd love to hear your opinion. I'll take my answer off the air, but - and what's your opinion specifically maybe in Colorado and then ultimately at the national level.

STEELE: Well, I think, you know, Colorado is one of those bellwether opportunities for the party. We saw that reality hit us in the face in 2008. It comes back to us in 2012, in the off years. In 2010, I think we ran some good candidates out there that resonated with voters. I think, for me, as you describe yourself as a young conservative, in my view that's good. You define your conservatism your way. I don't get to do that, you know, 3,000 miles away or 2,000 miles away or one block away in Washington, D.C.

CONAN: Yeah, but you know that during the election, the focus groups of younger people came up with words like close-minded, racist, rigid, old-fashioned to describe the Republican Party.

STEELE: Right, and that's where I'm heading. That's my next point. Because of how they are defining their conservatism and their Republicanism, not just necessarily conservatism, the takeaway, as you heard this young caller say, is I don't have trust in this old system. I don't have trust in these old leaders who don't recognize the dynamic I see. Millennials are changing the way we do politics. They deconstruct those old institutions. They break them out into pieces. And so their response to a problem is we can build an app for that.

We can create a universe of people that can generate action and activity around a particular issue without necessarily relying on these old institutions and these old strategies. We can bring something fresh to feeding people, clothing people, employing people. And I think that that's going to be very definitional for both parties. I think is uniquely opportunistic for the Republican Party to grab that energy that was just released in the report, for example, that came out this week from the college - the Republican National Committee - that talks about these words and these terms that are very important to people and how we translate that.

CONAN: Let's get Ryan on. Ryan is with us from Chicago.

RYAN: Hey. What's going on, guys? I really appreciate you having me on the discussion.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

RYAN: Sorry. So really quickly, I mean it looks like we're in a world of hyperpolarization, and I think one of the big contributing factors to that has been, you know, the Republican Party pandering to that conservative base. Everything that Michael said, you know, previous to the first caller coming out about, you know, free markets and individual liberty, that's all good, and that's the core of it, but it seems like every time that they try and run, you know, major national campaigns, they get hung up in pandering to that, you know, religious conservative base, and I think in large part that's driven a large part of this hyperpolarism that we see today.

I think if we could - the Republican Party could get out there and, you know, really address the core fundamental issues about freedom and limited government that I think they'll really start to pick up, you know, on this growing liberty movement, especially around, you know, younger people. I'm 29 years old, out of college now for seven years, but, you know, it seems more and more the young kids are getting it. And it seems like, you know, the former Republican Party up until, you know, really this past year still focusing on that religious right, but that just drives that hyperpolarism even further. And now we sit and we look at this chiasm between progressive liberals and neocons, and the majority of people are in the middle. We know that.

STEELE: Right.

CONAN: And Ryan, liberty movement, I don't want to put words in your mouth, but is that a libertarian idea?

RYAN: I mean I would say more the overall ethos of the liberty movement, you know, I think it's strong in, you know, liberals and, you know, from...

STEELE: Right.

RYAN: ...Colorado and Washington wanting to legalize marijuana...


STEELE: Yeah. I get exactly what you're saying, Ryan. And I would agree with you in that sense, that these old constructs really slam into that reality. One of the things that I try to do and I think we were very successful at in 2009 and 2010 in working with and putting in a position to win candidates like Chris Christie and Bob McDonnell in 2009, Christine Martinez - Christina Martinez, Raul Labrador in 2010, governor, congressman, Hispanic, is recognizing exactly what you just said, that the country is very different, in a very different space than our current politics.

And so allowing that opportunity for these candidates to run in their areas and in the districts and in the states where they are as opposed to putting this one-size-fits-all model in place is just not the way to go. I've said before, we're not a religious party as the GOP. We have religious folks in the party, but that is not the main driver for us.

CONAN: Ryan, thanks very much for the call.

RYAN: Thanks, Neal.

CONAN: We're talking with former RNC chair Michael Steele. Of course, Political Junkie Ken Rudin is with us. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Ken?

RUDIN: Michael, you know, we're talking about young voters and their enthusiasm for the Republican Party. We saw a lot of young voters in the recent Republican state convention in Virginia backing Bishop E.W. Jackson for lieutenant governor, and there was tremendous enthusiasm for Jackson, but he is also...

CONAN: In the convention.

RUDIN: At the state convention, right. But, of course, he has a history of very controversial statements...


RUDIN: ...and yet the party seemed to love him. So I mean there's a difference between enthusiasm in the state convention and whether that plays well in November.

STEELE: Absolutely. And that's the reality that the campaign will have to deal with between now and November. They're going to have to translate that enthusiasm for Jackson that we saw in a hall of 8,000 people into a statewide and albeit somewhat national campaign for the office this November, and how do voters in Northern Virginia, you know, young Republicans, older Republicans, you know, translate - how does that translate for them? I've heard some Republicans say that, you know, they're concerned about that because that hot rhetoric is not where the electorate wants to be anymore.

And you can't get away with, nor should you if you want a life in public office, talk about groups in disparaging ways, you know, identifying people as, you know, perverts and all that craziness. So the reality is coming home to roost, if you will, in terms of the idea of, oh yeah, we're going to get behind this guy because he sounds really good, and he's, you know, gives a great speech and has a great conservative message, OK, but you still have to win in a state where you're going to need to pull Northern Virginia in November, and you're going to have other parts of the state that aren't necessarily going to be so warm and fuzzy over the idea of some of this rhetoric.

So that's what you're going to see now. I think the Cuccinelli campaign right out of the box was like, you know, you've got to run his thing. That's why we run as independents. Yeah. We're a ticket in quotation marks, but he's got his campaign. I've got mine. And that tells you that they're sensitive to the fact that Virginia is not a hard red state as it was in the 1990s.

CONAN: It's a purple state now.

STEELE: It is a purple state. Obama has won it twice now, and that tells you all you need to know if you're running statewide of what you need to do and how you need to do it.

CONAN: One last email. This from Gabe: Embrace marijuana, embrace bringing the troops home.

STEELE: I embrace bringing the troops home. The marijuana, well, that's an individual choice.


STEELE: And that's the beauty of, you know, of the idea of being free to make these kinds of decisions for yourself. And political parties, at the end of the day, don't have any space in there.

CONAN: It will be an interesting decision when the Justice Department figures out what to do with those states that are embracing that.

STEELE: Well, they will. And again, you know, that's what - that's the magic of this great experiment we call America, is that you can have individual states and the people in those states make a decision and choose a course for themselves that is wholly consistent with the Constitution and the United States overall. And yet, you know, some people sit back, oh, we don't know want to do that here, but they're doing it there. Well, that's the beauty of America and you get to do that. And if you don't want to do what they're doing in those states, you've got the freedom to move if it bugs you that much.

CONAN: Former RNC chair - perhaps more to the point right now, former lieutenant governor of the state of Maryland, Michael Steele...


CONAN: ...thank you so much for being with us.

STEELE: It's a real pleasure to be with you guys.

CONAN: And Ken is going to stay with us as we focus on all the politics that's going on in the state of New Jersey, coming up. We want to hear from voters in the Garden State. Does the decision by your governor to schedule the election three weeks before the next election - well, how does that change your opinion of Mr. Christie? Give us a call. 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. I'm Neal Conan. It's the Political Junkie on TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


CONAN: On Monday, 89-year-old Senator Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey died of viral pneumonia. Lautenberg's death presented Governor Chris Christie with an opportunity to fill his seat temporarily and with a decision about when to schedule an election.

GOVERNOR CHRIS CHRISTIE, REPUBLICAN, NEW JERSEY: I know that Senator Lautenberg wouldn't want the people of New Jersey to go without a voice in the United States Senate. So today we're going to begin the process of sending a new representative to the U.S. Senate.

CONAN: Yesterday, Governor Christie chose an August primary and an October special election, prompting criticism from Democrats and from some Republicans as well. If you live in New Jersey, does this change your view of Chris Christie? 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. Brigid Harrison is a professor of politics and law at Montclair State University and joins us by phone from Montclair. Nice to have you on the program today.

BRIGID HARRISON: Great to be with you, Neal.

CONAN: And let's first about - talk about the timing of Governor Christie's. The primary is in August and then the special election three week before the general election.

HARRISON: That's right. And so in choosing this August 13 primary and October 16 election, what the governor has essentially done is assured that whoever the Democratic nominee is to replace Senator Lautenberg, that person will not appear on the same ballot that he himself will appear on on November 5. In doing this, he kind of infuriated Democrats who said, you know, you're wasting $24 million of taxpayer money, holding two elections at $12 million each. But also increasingly, it seems, that he infuriated many Republicans, some in the state who would have preferred that their gubernatorial candidate appeared on the ballot with him on November 5, and others throughout the country who said, you know, Governor Christie, you could have appointed someone for 18 months and we would have had a Republican senator from the state of New Jersey, which is not often an occurrence.

CONAN: And so having irritated all sides, Chris Christie, well, confirmed his stance as an independent voice but at some cost.

HARRISON: At some cost but at very little political cost, at least electorally for him. His chief concern right now is not with Democrats nationally nor Republicans for that matter throughout the country, but in his own reelection prospects. You know, oftentimes, he's talked about as a contender in 2016 and conventional wisdom in the state is that he would like to go into Iowa and New Hampshire with a double-digit victory here in New Jersey and be able to claim that mantle - you know, I'm not just a conservative, a social conservative, but I'm also a Republican who can win in a general election, and you know, Republicans nationally...

CONAN: In a Democratic state.

HARRISON: In a Democratic state, but I think the implication is nationally as well. And I think that Republicans are thirsty for that.


RUDIN: Brigid, here's one thing he also does to the Democrats. Had there been a 2014 election, many people feel that Cory Booker, the Democratic, the mayor of Newark, would have run unopposed for the nomination because members of Congress - Democratic members of Congress would have been afraid to take him on in the primary, like Frank Pallone and Rush Holt, Democratic members who want to be senator too. But having a special primary in 2013, these Democratic members of the House don't risk anything by challenging...

CONAN: They don't have to give up their seats.

RUDIN: They don't have to give up their House seat at all. So perhaps it could be a very messy Democratic primary that could somehow help the Republicans in the October general election.

HARRISON: Absolutely, Ken. And at the very least, one of the things that Governor Christie will walk away from is that all those gentlemen you talked about, whether it's Rush Holt or Frank Pallone, they will spend some money. Pallone and Holt have already declared their intention to run. And so Pallone's got $4 million in the bank. It would be nice to see him spending that money, beating up on another Democrat in the following weeks and months to come rather than saving that money for whatever purposes down the road.

The other thing though, Ken, is that it actually changes something in New Jersey that's rather unique. We always have our state legislative elections in odd years and, of course, our federal elections in even years. So what this also means is that state legislators, both Democratic and Republican, who might enter the fray in a federal election, in a U.S. Senate election, are kind of precluded from doing that, or at least if they do decide to do that, they do it with the risk of losing their state legislative seat. And so - especially for Republicans who recognize that their chances of winning the seat is a long shot. You know, it really kind of makes the bench a little bit shorter.

CONAN: We mentioned three Democrats who might be running. Who are the Republicans who might decide to challenge for that seat?

HARRISON: Oh, we have, you know, it's very difficult for - especially state legislators to gain name recognition in the state of New Jersey because we have a bifurcated media market. Half of our state is in New York. The other half gets Philadelphia media market. But the names that are being tossed around are state Senator Joe Kyrillos, who ran against Bob Menendez and lost in a rather embarrassing loss actually' state Senator Tom Kean Jr., who also ran for the Senate and lost; another state Senator Kevin O'Toole, who's viewed as kind of a rising star in the state. He is from north Jersey. And then a couple of members of the assembly - that's the lower House - Jay Webber and Jon Bramnick.

But again, all of these, no matter how qualified they are, none of them have the campaign war chest that someone like Cory Booker has. He has $2 million. And also, they are faced with that unlikely prospect of actually winning. We haven't elected a Republican in the U.S. Senate from New Jersey since 1972.

CONAN: And in the meantime, Governor Christie gets to appoint someone to serve between now and October 16. Who - what's the speculation there?

HARRISON: Well, I mean, he could, you know, actually, enter this fray and decide which one of the Republicans who's running he wants to back. I think that he's a lot more politically astute in that. My bet is that he might turn to someone like the former Governor Tom Kean Sr., who, you know, chaired the 9/11 Commission. He's viewed as an elder statesman in the state, very highly regarded, and he would be kind of a placeholder.

Another prospect is that he might appoint his own lieutenant governor, Kim Guadagno. And she has a rather extraordinary political background and since really been under-utilized in her role of lieutenant governor. By the doing this, the thinking is, is that, you know, he would then kind of be able to claim that he appointed a woman to the U.S. senate, even if it's only for 134 days. But the other political reality then is that he opens up that lieutenant governor spot. He could then name another Republican to that spot and use it more of grooming role, perhaps choose his eventual successor rather than the rather ceremonial role that it has been over the past several years.

CONAN: We want to hear from callers in New Jersey. How does this change your view of Governor Christie? 800-989-8255. Email is talk@npr.org. And Sara is on the line with us from Budd Lake in New Jersey.

SARA: Hi. Am I on the air?

CONAN: Yes, you are. Go ahead, please.

SARA: Hi. This is so cool. This is the first time I've ever called in, and I'm actually on the air.

CONAN: Congratulations.

SARA: Thank you. I'm just saying that, you know, when I heard it on the radio this morning that, you know, the date is, like, three weeks before the general election, I just find them kind of silly, but, you know, this is New Jersey. That kind of thing happens all the time. And so it's just - we kind of just shrug our shoulders and go, eh, that's normal.

CONAN: Eh. Eh. Twenty-four million bucks out the window.

SARA: Yeah. But, you know, we're kind of used to that here, and that's one of the reasons why I'm, you know, I lean Democratic. I'm a young voter. I'm 21. But I'm still - I'm planning on supporting and voting for Chris Christie in the fall because he's actually done things as a governor versus most of our - our string of past governors have just sort of sat there and just let the (unintelligible) of corruption kind of boil versus, you know, he's actually, you know, tried to get in there and clean it out.

CONAN: And Brigid Harrison, the reputation for actually doing things, that is, well, why Chris Christie expects to get that double-digit victory come November.

HARRISON: That is part of the reason. I think that whether you agree with his policies or disagree, you can't deny that he has been one to sit on his hands. And interestingly, you know, for people like Sara, one of the ways in which he's done this has been kind of coalescing with Democrats in the state legislature. He's kind of got a group of these - what are called Christiecrats, Democrats who tend to be conservative but also kind of tend to be under the control of these Democratic Party bosses with whom Christie has forged this rather unlikely alliance. And he can depend upon those, including the president of the state Senate to get significant pieces of legislation through, even pieces of legislation that kind of fly in the face of those kind of standard Democratic core constituencies. Democrats in the legislature have voted for them.

And this has enabled the governor to go throughout the country and claim that he has this bipartisan way of governing in this bipartisan method of support. And, you know, obviously, for people like Sara, that has been enormously influential.

CONAN: Sara, thanks very much.

SARA: Thank you.


RUDIN: Brigid, everybody is talking about the popularity, the extreme popularity of Cory Booker. But the fact is that Frank Lautenberg, Senator Frank Lautenberg resented the fact that Cory Booker talked about running for the Senate before Lautenberg was ready to announce his retirement. Is there any of that anti-Booker sense in the Democratic primary? Might it make a difference because I know Frank Pallone is hoping to expand on that if he challenges him for the nomination?

HARRISON: Sure. I think that there is a bit of that. I mean, you know, Mayor Booker has kind of a unique stature in the state. And, you know, because he has national reputation, he is often not viewed as kind of part of the party establishment. And so what that has mean is that, you know, there were some resentment not only that Booker had declared his intention to run before the Senate or announced his retirement, but also that he wasn't seen as kind of paying his dues, kind of getting in line with everyone else who wanted to run for the seat.

The reality, however, is that while Pallone has about twice the money that Booker has, Booker still has a significant advantage because he's one of the few politicians in the state who has that crucial name recognition that is still very hard to come by in New Jersey. There are lots of people in the state who have never heard of Frank Pallone. And if you venture outside his district, you know, his name recognition decreases the further you get away from it. And so in addition to having that name recognition...

CONAN: Maybe he should try rescuing somebody from a burning building.

HARRISON: There you go. That's right. And get on some of the talk shows.

CONAN: And then tweeting about it. Anyway...


CONAN: ...we're talking with Brigid Harrison, a professor of politics and law in Montclair State University. Of course, Political Junkie, Ken Rudin, is with us. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And John is on the line calling from East Windsor in New Jersey.

JOHN: Oh, hi. This is the fascinating conversation. Christie, whether one likes him or dislikes him, and I'm in the latter camp, certainly, is an intriguing politician and very smart. I think that above all besides watching - wanting to watch the Democrats have at each other, he's petrified of how much the dynamic of having Cory Booker in the race could change things. It becomes very unpredictable. He can certainly raise a lot of money both from inside the state and from outside the state. He can get the major back - and he is well known.

Congressman Holt is my congressman and a man I terrifically admire and a man I will support in the primary. I'm not sure what his fighting chances are against the other two candidates. But...

CONAN: Well, Ken, let me just ask you if - given the choices that Cory Booker had, if somebody is petrified of somebody else, Cory Booker seemed to be reluctant to take on Governor Christie for the governorship.

RUDIN: Yeah. Well, it's clear that at least from Hurricane Sandy, Christie's numbers were just, you know, skyrocketing. And clearly, while he wanted to be governor at some point, he realized his better chance for higher office was in the Senate race. What I'm fascinated by that, we have not mentioned the fact that Cory Booker is African-American. In previous election cycles, we would say, well, though, he have a chance because black candidate, blah, blah, blah, we don't even mention him in this conversation. And that's probably a good thing, Brigid.

HARRISON: Oh, it absolutely is. And, Ken, I wouldn't actually say to you that he has a better chance because he's African-American. I think that one of the constituencies that Democrats and the state have difficulty getting out. And to John's point, the caller - this would actually help Booker in both the primary and the general election for the Senate seat is that, you know, African-Americans, and in particular, urban voters in general, including Latinos, often times don't turn out in anything but presidential elections.

And so one of the compelling aspects of a potential Booker candidacy would be that those voters presumably would be very highly motivated to come out and vote, you know, for one of three U.S. senators who are African-American. And I think that that is part of the story and John was alluding to, is that, you know, he does not want Booker at the top of the ticket giving those Democrats a reason to come out and vote.

CONAN: Here's an email from Laura in Pennington, New Jersey: As a long-time resident and registered independent, I find nothing surprising about Governor Christie's decision regarding the special election. As he has done throughout his tenure, Governor Christie has managed to annoy everyone in all sides of the political aisle. Mostly, I applaud his decision not to wait until 2014 for the selection of a permanent replacement.

But his decision to schedule it in October, a mere 20 days before a statewide election is cravenly political and fiscally irresponsible in a state with a structural budget deficit in the billions. We can ill afford to waste $24 million. And just let me ask you, Brigid Harrison, would you expect that Christie line: I don't care what it costs to wind up in the - in a campaign ad maybe, oh, in Iowa in 2016?

HARRISON: I would expect that you would see that in Iowa. I think that you may actually wind up seeing that in the Democratic ad in the state of New Jersey. The reality is that, you know, Governor Christie made it sound like he was reaching into his own back pocket and writing the check. The reality is that taxpayers, of course, will be funding this. And basically, what we'll be paying for is a U.S. senator for 20 days additional at a cost $1.2 million a day, including weekends. And so, you know, it certainly is...

CONAN: The Senate does so much work on the weekends.

HARRISON: Yes, they do. And then so for Halloween as well. So, I mean, you know, certainly this decision with is within the governor's purview. He has the power to do this, but also I do think that while it's the most politically expedient decision for his own political career. I think that many New Jerseyans no matter your ideology or party might shake their heads and say this is clearly politically motivated despite the populous message that he's couching it in.

CONAN: Brigid Harrison, thanks very much for your time today.

HARRISON: Always a pleasure. Thank you.

CONAN: Brigid Harrison, professor of politics and law at Montclair State University, joined us from her office there on the phone. And, Ken Rudin, as always, we'll see you next Wednesday.

RUDIN: What exit?

CONAN: Political Junkie Ken Rudin is with us every Wednesday on TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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