Going into 2013, Governor Chris Christie’s primary focus was to get himself reelected governor and make gains for the Republican Party in the State Legislature. State Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean, Jr. (R-21) even laid out a map strategy that hoped to use Christie’s strong poll numbers similarly to his father’s and former Governor, Tom Kean Sr., equally strong popularity back in 1985 when the party had large gains in the State Legislature and gained the majority. However, in early June, the death of Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) left Christie to decide what the best course of action might be for him and the state in filling that vacancy and how that might impact his favorabilty among both Democrats and Republicans.
The most common strategy employed by governors when a U.S. Senator retires, takes another job, or dies is to appoint someone typically from the state party as the governor. That was seen in a few states in wake of President Barack Obama’s election and his appointment of other U.S. Senators to his cabinet. A special election generally follows as well where the appointed U.S. Senator has a chance to defend their seat or step aside. Selecting a Republican appointee to follow a Democrat in Lautenberg was to be expected as would praise from Republicans and disdain from Democrats. It would also generate some national buzz outside the state as a Republican appointee would eat into the Democratic majority in the U.S. Senate. However, the special election part would pose challenges for Christie that he did exactly want to deal with on what otherwise was a potential cruise to reelection. It would also soon begin to gather quite a bit of controversy based on Christie’s strategy with it.
Placing a special election on this November’s ballot would essentially guarantee higher energy coming from Democrats to select another Democratic U.S. Senator for a left leaning state that has not voted a Republican to the U.S. Senate since 1972. Very likely based on his exploration of running in 2014, Newark Mayor Cory Booker was almost expected to announce his candidacy in the special election and be a heavy favorite. In hypothetical polls at the end of 2012, Booker was the only major potential Democratic gubernatorial candidate that was in striking distance of Christie in popularity. Thus, it would not be out of the question that Christie would not want the U.S. Senate special election on the same day as the rest of the state elections. Booker’s name on the ballot at the same time as Christie would not necessarily mean that Democratic gubernatorial candidate and state Senator Barbara Buono (D-18) would defeat Christie; it would likely lessen his margin of victory. A major reelection victory would not only give him a major boost for his second term, but would continue his raise on the national stage as a leading candidate for the Republican nomination in 2016.
As Christie weighed the future of the late Senator Lautenberg’s seat, he had a couple options to avoid the special election falling the same day this November’s elections: he could push for an earlier date or could defer the special election until the end of Lautenberg’s term next November. Either option would likely draw criticism. An earlier primary and special election would give candidates less time to campaign and anger Democrats as the move would look like Christie was avoiding the special election coinciding with the state races including his own. Pushing it back to November 2014 would equally upset Democrats as a Republican would likely be serving in Lautenberg’s seat for a year and a half. Neither option would leave Christie smelling like roses. The first option would avoid someone like Booker being on the same ballot as him while appeasing Republicans slightly with a likely Republican appointee helping their Senate minority for a few months. The second option would garner him much more praise from Republicans as it would give the Republican minority an extra vote for an additional year while allowing that appointee to build a small Senate resume that could lead to that person running for reelection and possibly even breaking the 40 plus year trend of Democrats being elected to the U.S. Senate.
If Christie were to choose the first option it would set up a primary as early as August and a special election in October a few weeks before the November elections. The biggest problem for both Christie and the state of New Jersey with this slightly unconventional option would be the $24 million price tag it would have for taxpayers. It truly was a tightrope like situation for someone who has tried to tow his own line while locking up Republican support and making inroads among Democrats. His handling of Hurricane Sandy and his criticism of Republicans in Congress for fighting against a relief package for the area are the main reasons for his perceived major advantage in the polls, but a misstep regarding his approach to scheduling the special election would likely decrease some of the support he has gained from Democrats and Independents. The potential for a lawsuit over his decision on when to have the special election was also something for Christie to consider.
A Democratic official would echo that sentiment by stating,
“I seriously doubt he would want to have to deal with a lawsuit in his own election year, especially a lawsuit that he might lose.”
Within days of Lautenberg’s death, Christie would make his choice: a special election would be held in October three weeks before the November elections. He was preventing having Booker on the same ballot as him and believed that his decision was legal and could argue that. Additionally, he believed he giving voters a special election as they wanted: a 2013 special election as opposed to one next year. Before selecting this unique option, Christie explored the previously mentioned options and the implications related to each in terms of legality. Those within Christie’s legal team were more wary of the November 2014 option as opposed to having the special election this October or November.
Despite the $24 million price tag, Christie’s team quickly unrolled the slogan “a choice and a voice” for his decision.
It would not be long before Christie’s decision would draw the ire of Democrats in Trenton lead by Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-3). Even before Christie officially set the special election date for October, he would express,
“I know there’s been some confusion in the legislation (regarding filling a vacancy and scheduling a special election), but we think the intent is crystal clear that there needs to be a special election in November and we would be expecting that.”
While Office of Legislative Services (OLS) would outline,
“The governor may make a temporary appointment and that person would serve until someone is elected at the next succeeding general election, held in November of 2014. The winner thereof would serve the remaining two months of Senator Lautenberg’s term and then begin a full term in January of 2015.”
Despite the OLS mentioning that and stating some confusion around the state’s legislation regarding the matter, Sweeney would also voice;
“I know there’s some people saying there’s some confusion because in one section of the law it says one thing and another section of the law it says something different, but the legislative intent was very clear. We would hope the governor would do the right thing and have a special election this November.”
Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-34) appeared to be leaning towards Sweeney’s stance by exclaiming,
“Right now I am joining the state in mourning the loss of Sen. Lautenberg, but will turn to such questions in the coming days out of necessity. Having said that, I generally always believe the voters should be the ones deciding who holds public offices. That’s what democracy is all about.”
However, despite Sweeney’s words; Christie would go onto to make his choice of a special election in October and besides the “a choice and a voice” slogan he would comment;
“I want to have an elected senator as soon as possible. I think it’s vitally important.”
Based on New Jersey statute 19:27-6, Christie had the ability to call for an earlier special election than having having it fall on the general election date. There is still conflicting language regarding succession statutes that leaves some uncertainty around Christie’s choice.
He would also shoot down any criticism regarding the $24 million cost of having the special election early by uttering,
“The costs cannot be measured against the value. The citizens of New Jersey need to have an elected representative. The fact is that I favor the people selecting who represents them – not me – the people who represent them. I don’t know what the cost is and I quite frankly don’t care. I don’t think you can put a price tag on what it’s worth it have an elected person in the United States Senate and I will do whatever I need to do to make sure those costs are covered because all the people of the state of New Jersey will benefit from it. And we’re not going to be penny wise and pound foolish around here. As for the rest of the nonsense, if I spent nearly enough time as others apparently looking at what’s on the Internet, I would lose my mind.”
He would also look to shoot down speculation around him dodging being on the same ballot as someone like Booker by exclaiming,
“Listen, I can’t worry about some of the nonsense that gets written. I just can’t.”
He was referring to the following headline posted on the Drudge Report:
“Chris Christie to spend $24 million in N.J. tax money on special election to avoid Cory Booker …”
After Christie’s decision, Oliver would strengthen her stance from her previous comments by expressing;
“I’m very disappointed the governor has chosen to be so transparently political and waste taxpayer money on a special October election. The November general election date is what’s best for taxpayers and voter turnout. It’s unquestionably the best option, but Gov. Christie has chosen to put partisan politics and his self-interest first.”
Sweeney would too add to his previous comments:
“I appreciate that the governor heeded my call, and that of others, to ensure that the voters of New Jersey will get a chance this year to decide who will represent them in the Senate. Waiting 17 months to allow the public to have their say simply wasn’t an option. That being said, it certainly would have been more rational to hold the election in November instead of October.”
Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D-19) would add,
“Democrats believe an election should be held in a timely manner, however in what appears to be a blatantly political move, the Governor would rather spend $12 million in taxpayer funds on a special election when a general election is scheduled for less than three weeks later. Chris Christie’s decision speaks more to his national political ambitions than his responsibility to the residents of New Jersey as Governor.”
Also, Buono would voice;
“Earlier this year, the Governor cited money as to why he vetoed early voting. However, despite costing millions of dollars, Governor Christie made the cynical and arrogant decision to call a special election in October. His choice made it clear that he does not care about wasting taxpayer money. Moreover, by holding two elections within weeks of each other, the Governor will needlessly disenfranchise voters. He should change his decision and hold the election on November 5.”
With a primary date set for August and general election set for October, the legality around Christie’s decision has been questioned and provided a wrinkle in his journey towards November’s election. The dates would put the six candidates, four Democrats and two Republicans on a faster track to gain voter support. And it would garner Christie slack from both sides of the aisle. The U.S. Senate special election has become an unexpected issue and topic surrounding the gubernatorial election and the two candidates.