New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) on Tuesday called an Oct. 16 special election to fill the late-Sen. Frank Lautenberg’s (D) seat, sending voters to the polls just weeks before he faces his own reelection.
The decision could be the safest politically for Christie, because he won’t risk the Senate race driving a higher Democratic turnout as he campaigns for a second term.
“We have to move swiftly to fill this seat and ensure that there is both a primary and general election as soon as possible,” Christie said at a press conference.
“I will not permit the insiders and a few party elites to determine who the nominee of the Republican Party and the Democratic Party will be.”
Christie argued that his decision to hold the election in mid-October, rather than have it coincide with the Nov. 5 gubernatorial election, was required by New Jersey legal statutes.
He also said it would be wrong hold off on the election until November 2014, which had been another possibility, because it would deny voters a Senate choice for too long.
Christie dismissed reporters’ questions about the cost of holding a special election, which is expected to near $24 million. He argued the price tag “cannot be measured against the value” of giving voters as quick a vote as possible.
“I don’t know what the cost is, and I quite frankly don’t care,” he said. “We’re not going to be penny wise and pound foolish around here.”
Lautenberg’s death put Christie in a tough political position — stuck between the wishes of the national party and his own political aspirations.
Many Republicans outside the state wanted Christie to appoint a Republican through 2014 to give them an extra Senate vote for as long as possible.
But that could have hurt Christie politically heading into his own reelection, even though he appears to have the clear edge in the race against Democrat Barbara Buono.
Dick Armey, a former House majority leader and Tea Party activist, blasted Christie for not immediately appointing a Republican to serve out the remainder of Lautenberg’s term.
“I put it down as debilitating stupidity, because the first rule of politics is don’t lose the friends you already have for the friends you’re never going to get,” Armey told CNN.
Some Republicans also hoped for a November 2013 election, so the GOP Senate candidate would share the ballot with Christie.
Christie had to grapple with conflicting statutes about the timing of a special election.
One New Jersey statute suggested Christie could appoint a Senate successor to serve until next year’s general election.
Another more recent statute indicated a special election should occur on the same day as the November gubernatorial election or a separate day this year.
Democrats haven’t ruled out challenging the timing in court, though the Oct. 16 date appears less legally questionable than others he was considering.
Republicans haven’t won a Senate race in New Jersey since 1972, and Democrats have been heavily favored to hold Lautenberg’s seat.
President Obama carried New Jersey by 18 points last November.
While national Republicans aren’t happy about Christie’s decision, they say the likelihood of a crowded Democratic field could boost their chances somewhat.
Some argued Christie’s real reason for calling an October special was his wish to avoid sharing a ticket with Newark Mayor Cory Booker (D), who’s expected to seek the Senate seat.
“You can get a lawyer to tell you pretty much anything when the law is pretty vague,” said one Republican, when asked about Christie’s claim.
“We won a free prize. The governor just made that prize a little smaller.”
Any lasting resentment from GOP leaders could hurt Christie if he decides to run for president in 2016.
Christie said he wouldn’t “dawdle” on his decision to name an interim senator — who will hold the seat until the special election — and hinted he would likely name a Republican.
He said he would not base his choice on whether the appointee would be a placeholder, or someone who’d run for a full term.
Possible appointees include New Jersey state Sen. Joe Kyrillos (R), a close Christie ally who made an unsuccessful Senate run in 2012, as well as former New Jersey Gov. Tom Kean Sr., his son, state Sen. Tom Kean Jr., and Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno (R).
On the Democratic side, Booker has been moving toward a run for the seat for months but would have to break a pledge he made to finish out his term.
“Mayor Booker has been taking the steps necessary to run, but he will make an official announcement at the appropriate time,” Kevin Griffis, a Booker spokesman, told The Hill.
Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.) has also been making plans for months to challenge Booker.
“Frank Pallone just told me he’s running,” Rep. Albio Sires (D-N.J.) said as he exited the House floor Tuesday afternoon.
Reps. Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.) and Rush Holt (D-N.J.) are also considering bids.
The special election could be more attractive to House members than a general election, as they can run without having to give up their seats.
—Alexandra Jaffe contributed.
— Updated at 8:36 p.m.