Christie Splits the Difference

by Daniel Foster

Yesterday, New Jersey political observers were speculating as to which of two paths Governor Chris Christie would take with respect to the special election to replace the late Frank Lautenberg in the U.S. Senate. Would Christie schedule the election to coincide with his own November 2013 race, thus allowing (everyone presumes) superstar Democrat Cory Booker to share the ballot, driving up Democrat (and especially black) turnout? Or would he set it for 2014, when the seat was up anyway, and thereby avoid squaring off with Booker? This latter option would have made national Republicans happy — giving them another Republican vote (again, everyone presumes) in the Senate to fend off the Obama agenda for the 18 months before they get their next crack at the Democratic majority. But it would have also been the most partisan and the least little-d democratic approach.

To my surprise, Christie has done neither of these things, instead taking advantage of state law that allows him to call a special election in October, just three weeks before the 2013 general. In doing so, Christie can avoid sharing the ballot with Booker, and the anti-democratic knock. Still, in addition to eliciting an under-the-breath curse from Mitch McConnell, the move invites a different line of attack. Namely, why spend up to a reported $25 million of taxpayer money to finance a special election less than a month before a regularly scheduled one?

In a Trenton press conference Tuesday afternoon, Christie aggressively pushed the procedural-democracy angle, saying his decision was “about guaranteeing the people of New Jersey both a choice and a voice in the process, and the representation they deserve in Washington.”

But what about the cost?

“I don’t know what the cost is, and quite frankly, I don’t care,” was Christie’s unhelpful response. “We’re not going to be penny-wise and pound-foolish around here.”

The governor also claimed that state law did not allow him to set the special election for November. Later, he admitted that that while that’s technically true, he could have delayed his official writ declaring such an election by just ten days, at which time the guidelines for the timing of primaries and generals would have allowed the November date. Christie said that to so delay his decision would have itself been playing politics, and that sending representation to Washington as soon as possible is important considering the weighty issues the Senate will be taking up.

That’s plausible, I suppose, but it doesn’t really jibe with Christie’s image as a fiscal conservative generally, or his past support for moving school-board elections from April to November specifically to save money.

Conservatives and Republicans outside New Jersey are likely to be irked by Christie’s difference-splitting, and to see it as benefiting Christie at the expense of both taxpayers and the party. This is certainly understandable, but I’d add one caveat. New Jersey is a tough state for Republicans, not just nationally but locally. Even when they win the statewide popular vote in legislative elections,  as they have recently, the state’s electoral map is such that that doesn’t necessarily translate into a majority in Trenton.

Against this backdrop, having Christie — who leads his Democratic opponent by 30 points on some polls — at the top of the ballot is the GOP’s best chance to flip New Jersey at a critical time (Obamacare implementation anyone?) So you could say that in this case, what’s good for Christie is good for the GOP.

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