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Christie sets October special election to fill Lautenberg seat

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) announced Tuesday that he is setting a special election to fill the late-Sen. Frank Lautenberg’s seat for October, with a primary slated for August. (Mel Evans/AP)

Faced with a politically perilous dilemma with far-reaching implications, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) on Tuesday ordered an October special election to fill the Senate vacancy created by the death of Democratic Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg, a decision Christie said was rooted in a desire to quickly deliver his state a senator elected by the people. But the decision drew charges of political maneuvering from both ends of the political spectrum.

“The issues facing the United States Senate are too critically important, and the decisions that need to be dealt with too vital, not to have an elected representative making those decisions who was voted on and decided on by the people of this state,” Christie said at an afternoon news conference arranged to announce the Oct. 16 election.

The governor’s announcement came after a day and a half of uncertainty over how to fill Lautenberg’s seat. The senator died Monday. He was 89.

Nebulous state election laws suggested the timing of the election to replace Lautenberg could come either this year or next. Democrats pressed Christie to hold the election in November, to coincide with state elections, including Christie’s. But Christie said his priority is to have an elected senator in place as soon as possible.

Observers and party strategists were quick to note that Christie’s decision is good for his electoral prospects. By holding an October election, Christie does not have to worry about the threat of a top-flight Democratic Senate contender ginning up the party base and collaterally breathing life into the campaign of his opponent, state Sen. Barbara Buono. Polls show Christie leading Buono by a wide margin. Both won their party primaries Tuesday.

“I think that [Christie] is a masterful Machiavellian politician, and clearly this decision was consistent with the way he has governed,” said Montclair State University political scientist Brigid Callahan Harrison. “He’s very adept at looking after his own best interests politically, but ensuring that people understand it is in their best interests.”

The decision triggers a scramble in both parties ahead of a Senate primary the governor set for Aug. 13. In particular, Newark Mayor Cory Booker (D) now faces a different electoral outlook. Booker has long been laying the groundwork for a 2014 Senate run and has been widely regarded as the front-runner to succeed Lautenberg. Now looking at a 2013 primary, Booker could face more competition for the nomination. Democratic members of the state’s congressional delegation will not have to give up their seats to run in 2013, which could prompt a few long-shot bids and make Booker’s path to the nomination a more formidable one. Party strategists think Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D) will enter the mix. Other names could surface as well.

Christie is expected to soon appoint a interim senator, but he said Tuesday that he hasn’t decided who that will be. “There is one bucket of people, and those people are the people best qualified to serve,” Christie said.

Democrats quickly complained about the high costs associated with a special election, which according to one estimate could be $24 million.

“His choice made it clear that he does not care about wasting taxpayer money,” said Buono spokesman David Turner.

Christie batted back those concerns. The state would be responsible for paying for the election, he said.

“I don’t know what the cost is, and I quite frankly don’t care,” Christie said. “I don’t think you can put a price tag on what it’s worth to have an elected person in the United States Senate.”

While he is widely popular in New Jersey, Christie has been viewed with skepticism by some conservatives outside the Garden State. His welcoming of President Obama to New Jersey last fall to tour damage caused by Hurricane Sandy put the governor on rocky terrain with the political right. His decision to hold a special election carries the risk of further alienating conservatives.

“If Chris Christie believes, as most conservatives and Republicans do, that Washington would be more productive with more conservatives and Republicans in office, then he just whiffed on a great opportunity, said Keith Appell, a conservative strategist who said he wanted to see Christie appoint a Republican and push for a 2014 election. “Christie said the other day that he’s a damn good Republican, but this move has grass-roots conservatives and Republicans wondering what party he really belongs to.”

Christie said he was aware of the political advantages of naming someone to serve in the Senate until November 2014 but added that it is not appropriate for one person to pick a senator for that long.

“Eighteen months is a long time,” Christie said. “And there are going to be a lot of consequential things that could be decided in the United States Senate in that 18 months. And 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.”

Sean Sullivan has covered national politics for The Washington Post since 2012.

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