New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a Republican seeking a second term in November, called for a special election in October to fill the U.S. Senate seat vacated by yesterday’s death of Frank Lautenberg.
“The decisions that need to be made in Washington are too great to be made by an appointee,” Christie told reporters in Trenton. “This is about guaranteeing the people of New Jersey both a choice and a voice in the process, and the representation they deserve in Washington.”
Lautenberg, a five-term Democrat, died of complications from viral pneumonia at the age of 89. Christie, 50, said he will name an interim replacement by next week, and declined to say whether his choice would be a Republican, Democrat or unaffiliated. It would be up to the appointee to decide whether he or she wishes to run in the special election, he said.
“I haven’t made my decision,” Christie said of a temporary replacement. “I will pick the person who I believe will be the best representative of New Jersey in the United States Senate.”
Christie had discretion in setting an election date as he appointed an interim replacement, according to a ruling yesterday by the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services in Trenton. The pick could have served until the November 2014 general election, said the memo obtained by Bloomberg News.
Christie said he set the election schedule today and that the time frame -- an Aug. 13 primary and an Oct. 16 general election -- was the soonest the contests could be held under state law. The accelerated pace will still allow time for an open and honest campaign, he said.
The governor’s decision to set a special election less than three weeks before the Nov. 5 general election is “transparently political” and a waste of taxpayer money, said Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver, an East Orange Democrat. Her party controls the legislature, and all 120 seats are also up for grabs in November.
While Democrats wanted a 2013 election to replace Lautenberg, they said it should be held on the same day as Christie’s race. Each additional special election will cost about $12 million, according to the Assembly Democrats’ office.
“Chris Christie’s decision speaks more to his national political ambitions than his responsibility to the residents of New Jersey,” State Democratic Party Chairman John Wisniewski said in a statement.
Christie, who has been mentioned as a 2016 White House contender, had faced a difficult choice in selecting a date for the election and in tapping an appointee. He said today the decision wasn’t influenced by his own run or by a potential future presidential bid.
“I’m not going to play politics with this,” he said. “I just thought it was too long a period of time for any person to have the sole authority to pick who represents us in the United States Senate. I believe people have the right to make that choice. They need to have a voice and a choice and I’m giving it to them.”
Lautenberg had announced in February that he wouldn’t seek re-election next year. Newark’s Democratic Mayor Cory Booker, who weighed a challenge to Christie in the governor’s race, has been preparing to seek Lautenberg’s seat. U.S. Representative Frank Pallone, another Democrat, is said to be considering a bid, and another prominent Democrat potentially eying the seat is U.S. Representative Robert Andrews.
If Christie had opted for a special election on Nov. 5, the Senate race would have played out in conjunction with his own, complete with Booker’s name likely appearing on the ballot. That might have brought a flood of Democratic money and attention to the state and harmed Christie’s bid for another term.
Christie, enjoying high approval ratings after his response to Hurricane Sandy, holds an edge of more than 30 percentage points in recent voter surveys over his Democratic challenger, state Senator Barbara Buono. He has raised more than twice as much as her for the campaign.
“Chris Christie, like pretty much every politician, wants to win his next election by as big of a margin as possible, and if he had to share ballot with Senate candidates it would have hurt his landslide potential,” said Matthew Hale, who teaches politics at Seton Hall University in South Orange. “He tried to split the difference between protecting his own election, while giving New Jersey’s voters a chance to vote on a U.S. Senate candidate as soon as possible.”
U.S. Representative Bill Pascrell, a New Jersey Democrat, said the separate elections will deflate Democratic turnout. A Democratic governor in the same situation as Christie would have done the same thing, he said.
“He did what is in his prerogative,” Pascrell told reporters in Washington today.
Pascrell said he didn’t think Booker or anyone else was a shoo-in for the Democratic nomination. Booker didn’t respond to a voice mail seeking comment on the Senate race.
“It’s wide open,” Pascrell said. “It’s nobody’s.”
Pascrell said a contested Democratic primary in August could hamper the winner’s efforts to raise enough money for the statewide general election in October.
Christie’s decision “means Democrats will face an ugly primary sprint between Cory Booker, Rob Andrews and Frank Pallone -- all with substantial war chests and a healthy dislike for each other,” Brook Hougesen, a spokeswoman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said in an e-mail. “Cory Booker did not want this.”
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