Seven months after he stood shoulder-to-shoulder with President Barack Obama in what was celebrated by many in storm-battered New Jersey as a selfless display of bipartisanship, Republican Gov. Chris Christie finds himself accused of hypocrisy and raw self-interest.
The reason: On Tuesday, the day after Sen. Frank Lautenberg’s death, Christie announced a special election to fill the seat. But instead of holding it in November, when Christie is on the ballot for re-election, the governor scheduled it for Oct. 16, at an expected cost to the state of $12 million.
The move seemed at odds with Christie’s reputation for budget-cutting, and it infuriated both Democrats and Republicans.
Some said Christie clearly doesn’t want to be on the same ballot with a strong Democrat for Senate — say, Newark Mayor Cory Booker, a rising star in the party — for fear that that could boost black and Democratic turnout and deny Christie the blowout victory that could make him a strong candidate for the White House in 2016.
Former Rep. Dick Armey, a Tea Party leader who was once GOP House majority leader, called the move “debilitating stupidity.”
The Star-Ledger, New Jersey’s largest newspaper, called it “a shameless move that will waste at least $12 million and risk the integrity of the vote.”
The sharp criticism from so many directions is unusual for Christie, whose combative style and quick wit have made him popular across the country.
When he unveiled the plan Tuesday, Christie portrayed it as a nonpolitical move designed to uphold democratic principles by giving voters a say as soon as possible under state law.
“This is about guaranteeing the people of New Jersey both a choice and a voice in the process in the representation that they deserve in Washington,” he said.
Christie also scheduled a Senate primary for Aug. 13, saying the candidates should be chosen by the people and not party bosses. That will cost the state another $12 million, and set up three elections in less than three months.
Booker and Rep. Frank Pallone, both well-financed Democrats, had previously expressed interest in the seat held by Lautenberg, a Democrat whose term would have expired at the start of 2015. Neither man has said whether he will run in the special election.
If Booker were on the ballot in November, he could bring out Democratic voters who would not bother to show up at the polls for Barbara Buono, the state senator who is challenging Christie for governor. Big Democratic turnout could hurt the GOP’s chances of picking up seats in the Legislature.
Some Republican lawmakers are reportedly considering a run for the Senate, including conservative activist Steve Lonegan, a former mayor of Bogota.
A Senate run is expected to be a challenge for any Republican, a state that has 700,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans and has not elected a Republican senator since 1972.
Some Republicans believe their best shot would be for Christie to appoint a strong Republican now and schedule the election for November 2014.
“From the folks that I’ve talked with, Chris Christie’s glow has diminished,” said Don Rogers, a tea party activist in South Carolina, which holds the first-in-the-South presidential primary.