To hear the political media tell it, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) made a stinker of a decision Tuesday by setting the state's special Senate election for Oct. 16 rather than on the same day as the general election either this year or in 2014.
But the decision was probably the best of three bad options for Christie.
The Star-Ledger editorial board blasted Christie for a "self-serving stunt," and it was joined in that criticism by several politicians -- most of them Democrats.
But as is often the case with Senate vacancies -- this one created by the death of Democratic Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg -- the controversy was probably unavoidable. Giving a governor carte blanche to interpret the law and make an interim appointment these days often ends poorly (see: Blagojevich, Rod; Paterson; David; and Abercrombie, Neil).
In addition, New Jersey special election law put Christie in an especially unenviable position because it is highly contradictory and totally open to interpretation.
Essentially there were three options.
Republicans would have preferred that Christie wait until November 2014 and allow a Christie appointee (read: a Republican) to serve the next 17 months.
Democrats would have preferred that Christie set the election for Nov. 5, 2013 -- the same day that Christie faces reelection and state legislative races are held. Their thinking was that putting Senate front-runner and Newark Mayor Cory Booker (D) on the ballot might spur Democratic turnout and maybe even give them a chance to upend the highly popular Christie.
Instead, Christie went in a third direction, choosing an option that few knew was even on the table until Tuesday afternoon.
His decision to set the election for Oct. 16 is hardly a crowd-pleaser -- Republicans and Democrats alike will object to the cost of holding an extra election (estimated at $12 million) when the general election is less than three weeks later -- but it's probably his best hope to avoid the whole situation blowing up in his face.
If Christie had chosen November 2013, New Jersey Republicans would have been rightly upset that he endangered their electoral hopes by putting the popular Booker on the ballot. As it stands, the underfunded gubernatorial campaign of state Sen. Barbara Buono (D) threatens to be a real drag on Democrats down the ballot. And Christie is already in danger of alienating the GOP base thanks to his embrace of President Obama.
If he had chosen November 2014, Democrats would have been up in arms that Christie would allow a GOP appointee to serve in what had been a Democratic seat for a year and a half. And he would almost definitely have earned himself a court challenge.
Instead, Christie chose something that:
1. Appears bipartisan. Christie said he quite simply wanted a duly elected senator to serve in the seat as soon as possible. He can also rightly argue that he gave neither side exactly what it wanted. More and more, this is the image that Christie is crafting -- a damn-the-torpedoes, nonpartisan politician doing what he thinks is right.
(Side note: It's working.)
2. Minimizes the possibility of a successful court challenge. Republicans and Democrats may not be happy, but are they really going to go to court? And even if they do challenge it, Christie probably made the one move that gives his decision the best chance of surviving a lawsuit.
The laws that suggest it should be held on general election day in 2013 and 2014 clearly contradict each other, and each seems to have something of an opt-out clause ("unless the Governor shall deem it advisable to call a special election therefor"), while third part of the law actually dictates when the special election should be held and doesn't include an opt-out clause.
None of this is to say that Christie's decision won't be challenged in court or that it won't reflect poorly on him. It may, and it probably will, to some degree -- especially because it clearly seems to benefit his own reelection.
But Christie has political capital to burn, and the idea that regular voters are going to suddenly desert him en masse because of something as inside-baseball as setting a special election date is far-fetched.
And for Christie, setting the special election for October is probably what gets him past this episode as quickly as possible.