New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has lived a charmed existence this election cycle, winning plaudits from both left and right for his handling of the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy and dismissing critics of his wholehearted embrace of President Obama in the days before the 2012 election with his usual bombast.
Combined with his successful record of reform and growing national profile, he has enjoyed a record-setting approval rating and is on the short list of serious candidates for the Republican nomination for president in 2016.
While the governor's sharp political instincts and straight-talking style have served him well thus far, the sudden death of New Jersey Sen. Frank Lautenberg will provide him with the first test of his potential 2016 run.
To be sure, the governor hasn't shied away from difficult decisions before, as evidenced by his willingness to take on teachers' unions in the state and speak with great candor about his personal struggle with his weight. His decision to appoint a Jeffrey Chiesa, a longtime friend who won't seek the seat in October, displays a political intelligence that has served him well, but the decision isn't without risks.
Regardless of who becomes the Republican nominee, he or she would face an uphill climb in traditionally Democratic New Jersey. Coupled with the with the high name I.D. and organizational head start enjoyed by presumptive Democratic candidates Cory Booker and Frank Pallone, the race could turn out to be a fascinating look at whether Governor Christie's brand translates to races beyond his own.
Viewed in that context, Christie's decision to eschew an appointment until 2014 and opt for a special election could be seen as a confident bet that his personal popularity could carry the Republican standard bearer to victory – a gamble, but betting against the governor hasn't shown to be a safe stance to this point.
Moreover, he could come under more scrutiny if interim Senator Chiesa violates conservative principles on abortion, marriage or the size of government. Support for these issues, while in step with the state, would be used against him in traditionally conservative states like Iowa and South Carolina as evidence of the kind of judges and appointees a President Christie would choose. While these attacks aren't always grounded in facts, they are ready-made for attack ads as candidates look to define one another.
Clearly there are those in the governor's administration who would have preferred to avoid the situation altogether and even as we analyze the politics of his decision, it's important to remember that Sen. Frank Lautenberg was an American hero who served his country well. While the kickoff to the 2016 election may be years away on the calendar, Governor Christie's decision marks an unofficial beginning to what promises to be a fascinating race.
Joe Brettell is a former Capitol Hill aide and Republican strategist. On Twitter: @JoeBrettell