New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie plans to conduct a special election in October to fill the unexpired term of the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg, provoking a scramble among hopefuls in both parties looking to grab the seat.Not surprisingly, this is causing considerable GOP angst:
Saying “the people must choose,” Christie moved Tuesday to end at least part of the speculation surrounding the vacant post, announcing that a primary will be conducted on Aug. 13, with the survivors facing off on Oct. 16. The victor will fill out the remainder of Lautenberg’s term, which ends in January 2015. Whoever wins likely will seek a full six-year term in the November 2014 election.
The governor also intends to appoint a replacement until the election. His choice is expected later this week, sometime shortly after Lautenberg’s burial on Wednesday. Christie hasn’t indicated whether he intends to choose a caretaker or someone who may vie for the remainder of the unexpired term.
About the only sure thing is Christie will opt for a fellow Republican to replace Lautenberg, a Democrat.
“I’m going to pick a person I believe to be the best person,” he said in making the election announcement. “I do have a list in my head. You all know me. I don’t dawdle.”
The decision puts to rest speculation about the path Christie intended to pursue. New Jersey has conflicting statutes on how to fill an unexpired senatorial term. One allows the governor to make a temporary appointment until the next general election – in this case, Nov. 5. But another state law maintains if the vacancy occurs within 70 days of the primary – it did in this case, the New Jersey primary was Tuesday – the governor can call a special election to fill the vacancy.
There was some speculation that Christie might choose a strong Republican contender and let him or her serve out the remainder of Lautenberg’s unexpired term, giving the GOP a leg up on potential Democratic foes when the seat comes up on Nov. 5, 2014.
Instead he opted for a quick election, maintaining that pending issues are “too great to be determined by an appointee for a period of 18 months.”
“I want to have an elected senator as soon as possible,” he said.
The decision could prove costly – the New Jersey Office of Legislative Services estimates that the combined primary and special election could cost the state $24 million. But it relieves some of the political pressure Christie faced over the timing.
Christie is in the midst of his own re-election campaign. He currently holds what some polls point to as a 30-point lead over his challenger, state Sen. Barbara Buono. But GOP insiders maintained that the governor wanted to avoid conducting the Senate and gubernatorial election on the same day.
The most likely Democratic Senate candidate emerging is Cory Booker, the mayor of Newark, an African-American with a national reputation. If Booker is the Democrats’ choice, he’s expected to draw black voters to the polls, probably cutting into Christie’s electoral edge if they appeared on the same ballot.
The term for Lautenberg’s vacant seat runs until November 2014. Christie had two options in how to fill it. Option one: Simply appoint someone to serve out the rest of the term and let voters elect a new senator on schedule next year. Assuming Christie appointed a Republican, that would give the national GOP an extra vote in the Senate for almost 18 months — granted, likely a moderate vote, but that’s still preferable to a liberal Democrat. Maybe the appointee would impress Jerseyans with his Senate record and would stand an incumbent’s fighting chance to hold the seat against Cory Booker next year. Or maybe he wouldn’t intend to run against Booker at all, which would free him up to vote as a conservative for the remainder of the term. Jersey Democrats threatened to sue Christie if he went this route, but as Ed Krayewski noted at Reason, he had cover from the state’s bipartisan Office of Legislative Services. Reportedly, they issued an opinion earlier today stating that the 18-month appointment would be just fine legally.So what?
Option two: Christie could throw all of that away by appointing a very short-term replacement for Lautenberg and scheduling a special election for sometime later this year. That would give Booker all kinds of advantages. Not only wouldn’t he have to face a GOP incumbent with more than a year’s experience in office, he also wouldn’t need to worry about his opponent having lots of time to fundraise. The risk to Christie in choosing this option was that it would bring all sorts of Democratic voters out to the polls on election day who might otherwise have stayed home. And that means Christie, who’s cruising to victory at the moment, could suddenly see his own gubernatorial reelection bid jeopardized by the big surge in Democratic turnout. All of which makes this a no-brainer, right? Appoint a Republican to finish Lautenberg’s term and trust that Christie’s big lead in the gubernatorial race won’t suffer too much for it. How angry could Jersey Democrats be if he appointed a Republican as squishy as he is?
So which option did Christie choose? Option two, of course — except that, in order to protect his own ass electorally, he decided to schedule the Senate special election in October, not on election day in November. Now he gets the best of both worlds, all but handing the seat to Booker ASAP to burnish his “bipartisan” brand while ensuring that he himself doesn’t have to face the extra Democratic voters who’ll turn out to vote for Booker. National Republicans are, as you might imagine, honked off[.]
Look, I get that the Democrats often try sleazy procedural tactics designed to screw Republicans. Witness the passage of Obamacare, or the constant blocking of good federal court nominees and the midnight promulgation of draconian environmental rules. For that matter, that's how Lautenberg got the nomination to replace the scandalized Robert Torricelli, who was forced to withdraw barely a month before the 2002 general election, in the first place (in violation of black letter New Jersey law). That is beneath contemptible, and deserves far more of a retaliation than the national GOP has been willing to give them.
Yet, put the shoe on the other foot here. If Christie was a Democrat and was calling for a special election that had a good chance of putting a Republican in the Senate seat, would the GOP be complaining? Nope. They would be celebrating his spirit of "bipartisanship," as the Democrats are now.
The people of New Jersey are generally liberal Democrats. Patriotic liberal Democrats, but still liberal Democrats. To try to trick them using procedural technicalities into electing or simply being stuck with a senator who does not represent them is just as sleazy as anything Harry Reid or Nancy Pelosi has attempted.
Neither party has a monopoly on the right thing to do. But Chris Christie has chosen the right thing to do, something that may not be in his best political interest, but is in the best interest of good representative government. And Christie should be celebrated for so choosing.