In a decision with deep political implications, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) on Tuesday announced a special election in October to replace the late-Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D). He was thus able to keep his own November re-election date free from the threat of a popular down-ticket distraction: Newark Mayor Cory Booker (D), who has made it clear he wants Lautenberg's seat.
A primary election will be held on Aug. 13, with the special election on Oct. 16.
With Lautenberg's passing, Christie faced two difficult choices: Appointing a temporary senator, which he has yet to do, and setting a special election date for voters to select a permanent replacement.
Christie had the options of scheduling an election for next November, this November, or an earlier date of his choosing. In the end, he went with option three, saying repeatedly that he "deemed it advisable" to do so — hardly the most transparent statement.
Christie claimed that there was "no political purpose" behind his decision, and that he had acted solely to ensure that there is an election as soon as possible. Yet the odd timing of the election date — weeks before Christie's own re-election, in which he's a considerable favorite — means he won't have to share a ballot with Booker, a popular Democrat in the deep-blue state.
That has naturally lead to much speculation that Christie was really just protecting his own political ambitions.
"If the special election had been set for Nov. 5, as New Jersey Democrats had been lobbying for, the potential presence of Booker on the ballot would have been a boon to Christie's Democratic gubernatorial opponent, state Sen. Barbara Buono," wrote The Washington Post's Sean Sullivan. "Buono is losing badly now, but with a well-known Senate candidate ginning up the Democratic base ahead of Election Day, her fortunes could have turned."
Josh Barro concurred in a post over at Business Insider. "Everyone knows this is B.S.," Barro wrote of Christie's claim that he simply wanted to fill the seat sooner. "Christie knows he's better off if his race and the Senate race are on separate ballots."
Barro also argued that Christie had given Republicans their best chance to pick off the Senate seat, too.
A low-turnout election on a Wednesday in October with nobody else on the ballot gives Republicans their best chance to win. Booker still has an advantage, but he isn't as good a candidate as his national profile suggests. [Business Insider]
New Jersey hasn't had a Republican senator since 1979, so winning the seat would be a huge coup for the GOP. And with the Senate in a near-constant state of gridlock, even one seat switching hands could make a huge difference on immigration reform legislation and other hot-button issues.
And it turns out that Christie may have been too cute by half. Unluckily for him, Republicans are reportedly hopping mad about the decision as well. Contra Barro, Josh Kraushaar at National Journal reported that the GOP sees the early date as a disadvantage, with many members "suggesting he's putting his own interests ahead of the GOP's":
The decision to hold a separate special election in October 2013 — just two weeks before his own election — would give any interested Republican candidates little time to announce, organize a campaign, and raise the necessary money to take on a top-tier Democrat, likely Newark Mayor Cory Booker. [National Journal]
Christie said Tuesday that the cost of holding a separate election date "cannot be measured against the value of having an elected representative in the United States Senate when so many consequential issues are being debated and determined this year."
"I don't know what the cost is, and I quite frankly don't care," he added.
The Democratic Governor's Association quickly seized on that comment and turned it back against the governor.
"Governor Christie might not know or care how many millions of taxpayer dollars his special election gambit will waste, but the people of New Jersey certainly do," the group said in a statement. "Christie should do the right thing, protect New Jersey taxpayer dollars instead of his own political career, and hold the Senate election on the same day as his own."