Governor Chris Christie’s call for an October vote to fill a U.S. Senate seat may help Republican state lawmakers in New Jersey’s general election less than three weeks later by giving Democratic voters a reason not to show up.
The call lets the Republican governor avoid appearing on a Nov. 5 ballot below a Senate race in which a popular Democrat, such as Newark Mayor Cory Booker, would have figured prominently. Should Christie’s supporters flock to the polls in November, his party may make gains in the legislature, where no incumbent Democrat has lost a re-election bid since 2007.
Christie, 50, will top the November ticket that includes all 120 legislative seats. Lawmakers in his party are banking on his success filtering down to other races. He leads state Senator Barbara Buono, a 59-year-old lawyer from Metuchen and his Democratic challenger, by more than 30 percentage points in several recent polls and has raised twice as much money.
“He’s exhausting Democratic resources and making it harder for the party to marshal them on Election Day, when there will be a lot of other candidates on the ballot,” said Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute of New Jersey Politics at Rider University in Lawrenceville. “He’s wasting Democratic time, money and depressing turnout.”
Republicans can use the help. Democrats hold an edge of 48-32 in the Assembly and 24-16 in the Senate. The party’s registered members outnumber Republicans by more than 700,000, while independents top both. New Jersey voters have backed Democrats for president since 1992 and haven’t sent a Republican to the U.S. Senate since 1972.
Against this backdrop of Democratic strength, Republicans in the legislature think they have a realistic shot at picking up as many as five seats this year, thanks in part to Christie’s special-election call. The effect also may trickle down to local council races, should the governor’s campaign bring out Republican-leaning voters statewide.
“It’s always good to share a ticket with Governor Christie,” said the Senate’s top Republican, Minority Leader Tom Kean of Westfield. “The governor will have coattails.”
The Democratic lock on the legislature has forced Christie to cede some ground in negotiations over a tax cap and recasting state pensions and retiree benefits. It has also stymied his efforts to cut levies and ban payouts to public employees for unused sick time.
Heading toward November, Republicans have targeted four districts where they contend a small change in the electoral balance would produce wins for their candidates. In January, Kean said in a memo that the party could win the seats. At least three more have been identified as in play, including the one Buono gave up to challenge Christie.
U.S. Senator Frank Lautenberg, a five-term Democrat, died June 3 of viral pneumonia, and Christie called for the special election the next day. That set off a rush to win the seat.
Christie could have appointed an interim replacement to serve the remaining 18 months of Lautenberg’s term. Instead, he named a temporary senator, state Attorney General Jeff Chiesa, to serve until an October election.
The governor prompted criticism by not setting the special election to occur with the general balloting on Nov. 5, forcing the state to spend an extra $12 million for the earlier vote. A primary would have been required for either an October or November date.
Christie denied that politics drove his call.
“My consideration was to look at what my options were and to make the best and most legally defensible choice I could make,” Christie told reporters June 6. He said state law isn’t clear on the subject, leading him to set the election for the earliest possible date, Oct. 16, with party primaries on Aug. 13 -- giving candidates less than a week to qualify for the ballot.
U.S. Representative Rush Holt was the first Democrat to declare his candidacy on June 6, followed by Booker on June 8. Congressman Frank Pallone also has expressed interest. Steven Lonegan, a former mayor of Bogota, is the only Republican to jump in. Today is the deadline to qualify for the primary.
Presidential politics also may have been afoot in the timing of the special election, according to analysts such as Jennifer Duffy, who tracks governors and the U.S. Senate for the Washington-based Cook Political Report. Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University polling institute in West Long Branch, New Jersey, said Christie wanted to give himself the chance for amassing the biggest margin of victory he could.
The coattail effect he may provide to Republicans seeking legislative and local offices would let him start a second term from a position of greater strength, with more allies in office, Duffy said. Both that and a landslide win may help his political future more than an 18-month Senate appointment, she said.
“One group of Republicans that is happy with him right now is Republican state legislators,” Duffy said in an interview. “It would be a more powerful argument to make in a primary than a senate seat.”
Frank Balles, a Republican running to unseat Democratic incumbent James Whelan in an Atlantic City-area senate race, said he isn’t focused on the top of the ticket. While he said the absence of a Democrat of Booker or Pallone’s stature on the top of the ballot is one less issue for local Republicans to worry about, each campaign is fought individually and voters will split tickets.
“Chris Christie’s a very strong candidate and he’ll help to pull a lot of votes to the Republican side of the ticket,” Balles, 51, a former police officer and elected sheriff of Atlantic County, said in an interview. “Personally, my focus is on running against an incumbent senator and it doesn’t really matter to me who is up top.”
In his first run for sheriff in 2008, Balles said there was record turnout as Democrat Barack Obama won the White House. Even as the presidential campaign boosted voter participation, Balles said the 58,000 votes cast for his candidacy set records in Atlantic County.
Derek Roseman, a spokesman for the Democrats’ legislative campaign, said the effect of the special election would be “marginal” on state-level races that culminate Nov. 5. Democratic turnout may be “hampered” by the lack of a Booker or Pallone on top of the ballot, yet the bigger danger lies in “election fatigue” from back-to-back contests, Roseman said.
“Certainly, if we had that U.S. Senate race at the top of the ticket in November it does add an additional level of excitement,” Roseman said in an interview. “But I don’t believe it would be enough to change the outcome.”