Christie’s Political Genius

With the passing of New Jersey’s Senator Frank Lautenberg came an opportunity for Governor Chris Christie to make up with the Republican Party’s base. Faced with conflicting statutes, Christie had what seemed like three choices for when to schedule the election needed to fill the vacancy in the Senate. He could leave the election schedule alone, thereby allowing whomever he appointed to serve out the remainder of Lautenberg’s term. Or he could have an election in November, scheduled to coincide with his gubernatorial reelection, to pick the late senator’s replacement. A third, and most unlikely, option would be scheduling a special election in mid-October, just three weeks before the aforementioned gubernatorial election.

The first option appealed most to Republicans, as they would be able to have a GOP vote for an extra year in a reliably “blue” state. The second option appealed most to Democrats, as it would allow them to get the “star power” of Newark’s Mayor Cory Booker on the ballot in November, which would help Barbara Buono in her race for governor. Which, considering his track record, makes it perfectly understandable that Christie picked option number three.

The need to protect the “Christie brand,” as his independent streak has come to be known, and which has been perfected by the governor, has had many on either side pointing to it as the only reason he would make this decision. The only winner with this move, both sides have argued, is Christie himself. By keeping the Senate race off the ballot, and not appointing a reliable GOP vote in a Democrat state, he’s all but locked up his reelection, while shielding himself from destroying the post-partisan image he’s worked so hard to build post-Sandy.

Considering the number of attacks he’s come under, from both sides, since making the decision, one can mistakenly think that this decision has been a miscalculation by the New Jersey governor. He’s now facing criticism from both sides over his decision, and the fact that it seems he didn’t anticipate the reaction to the move makes it seem like it will end up as a net loss for Christie.

A closer look at the factors that needed to be considered when making the call, however, tell a different story.

The truth is, Christie really only had two choices. The statute dealing with the appointment of an interim senator says that the new senator will serve “until a special election or general election shall have been held pursuant to law.” A “general election” is defined as “the annual election to be held on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November and, where applicable, includes annual school elections held on that date.” Even if Christie would have chosen this to mean the “general election” for that particular office, there is no question it would not stand. The New Jersey State Supreme Court, known for being a partisan liberal court, would almost certainly overturn that interpretation.

So the two remaining options were scheduling a special election, or scheduling the senatorial election to coincide with his own gubernatorial one. The main criticism he is getting for calling a special election is that, as one Republican operative said, “Christie does what’s best for Christie.” But to say that Christie was scared that he might lose his race if Booker is on the ballot for a different race is nothing short of absurd. Remember, Booker chose not to run against Christie because he didn’t think he could beat him. (A December poll had Christie trouncing Booker 53 percent to 34 percent.) To say Christie was worried that he would not look as good beating Barbara Buono by a smaller margin than the 30 points with which he currently leads is also preposterous.

What makes the most sense, and what probably is his thinking, is that Christie is looking at more than himself here. In fact, Christie is actually taking the heat for this so-called “self-serving” move, because it is what is better for the NJGOP, and by extension, the state of New Jersey. Most of Christie’s focus now, with his reelection all but assured, is the down-ballot races. And while winning the state legislature seemed like a long shot before the passing of Senator Lautenberg, it is now conceivably within reach.

By scheduling the Senate race just three weeks before his re-election, and taking the heat that comes with that decision, Christie is actually doing the opposite of what his critics say he is doing. He is sacrificing his own image for the good of the state party. With the left energized to vote for Booker, a rising star, the turnout in the special election can be expected to be big for Democrats. But by getting them to go vote in October, he is basically ensuring that they don’t turn out again three weeks later, which gives him a chance to maximize his down-ballot advantage. His chances to win back the legislature increase dramatically if the opposition’s voter intensity is suppressed, and he will be able to more effectively govern with a willing partner in the legislature. If so, Christie is actually doing what is best for New Jersey, not what is best for Christie.