NJ Senate Race 2013: Why is Chris Christie Spending $25 Million On a Special Election?

While pundits have already devoted an enormous amount of time to dissecting Chris Christie's (R-N.J.) smallest personal and political maneuvers to predict his presidential aspirations, Christie's most recent call for a special election to fill the late Senator Lautenberg's seat is sure to have them reeling with renewed fervor. This is because his decision on Tuesday to put together an upcoming August 13 primary and October 16 election to fill the New Jersey Senate seat has all the trimmings of a carefully crafted political maneuver. But onlookers should be cautious not to rush to identify the politics behind the decision without carefully considering the range of political dynamics behind this choice, where any decision to appoint, elect, rush, or delay the filling of the Senate seat risk a range of political pushbacks from party and opponents alike that make the implications for 2016 difficult, at best, to predict.

Following five-term New Jersey Democratic Senator Frank Lautenberg's death on Monday at age 89, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie faces a difficult decision in filling a Senate seat his overwhelmingly democratic state. A decision that the Atlantic reports "could shape his future political trajectory."

But the pushes and pulls Christie faces — both from his constituents, his party, and the opposition on his tail — in carefully crafting and timing this decision are complex, and indeed less black and white than some have jumped to report. In fact, the biggest lesson from this situation may be less about 2016 than about the need for more clearly defined electoral procedures.

As Republicans need to gain six seats to win a Senate majority in 2014, it remains the case that New Jersey has not elected a state Republican since Clifford Case in 1972. Many fear Christie's decision to elect, rather than appoint, the Senator to fill the remainder of the late senator's tenure will anger the Republican Party as a missed opportunity, in the process slighting the GOP.

In the meantime, Christie must appoint an interim representative, which he has not yet announced. He has, however, explained, "I do have a preference for one party over the other, so that might color my judgement a little ..." and is thus expected to appoint a Republican at least as an interim representative. 

Still, Christie's decision to rush to formulate a special interim election, one ABC news estimates could cost New Jersey taxpayers an estimated $25 million, is at least couched in the argument that Christie values the need for speedily guaranteed "representation" as Congress continues to battle out important issues in heated gridlock.

"There's no political purpose. The political purpose is to give the people a voice. The issues facing the United States Senate are too important not to have an elected representative making those decisions." Christie has said, following up saying "I don't know what the costs are and quite frankly I don’t care."

The decision has gained some support, even from Democrats. "I think it’s the right thing to do," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., told reporters on Capitol Hill.

Still, others are quick to claim the decision is based on pure 2016 aspirations for Christie, who is aware of New Jersey Mayor Cory Booker's aspirations to run for the Senate seat and may have hopes to separate the Democratic turnout Booker's ballot presence may distract from Christie's own reelection campaign in November. Christie currently holds high leads in polls over Democratic state Senator Barbara Buono in the gubernatorial race, a smooth win which many report Christie would need to bolster his political capital as a stand-out in the 2016 presidential game.

Whatever the strongest pulls leading to this decision may be — be they for personal political aspirations, broader party politicking, or indeed some genuine support for "representative" values — those quick to pigeon-hole the decision as a deviously calculated push for 2016 must contend that Christie is engaged in a tenuous balancing act. Crafting any such maneuver holds as many risks as potential benefits.

The decision hinges on the rock-and-hard-place dynamic Christie must consider in balancing Republican Party pressures against his own political brand as a mover and shaker willing to move beyond party lines in his overwhelmingly democratic state. It may indeed be shrewd for the governor to avoid ownership of the potentially lose-lose decision, and claim it lies in the hands "of the people." While it is useful to look critically on the politician's claims that the decision is purely based on respect for democratic "principles" of representation, it is not as easy to clearly identify implications for 2016.

What the situation does reveal is that a congressperson's death in office presents a great deal of power to state governors, power that would be better defined by clearer election procedures. Procedures for electing senators are outlined in Article I, Section 3 of the Constitution and its 17th amendment, allowing the legislature of any state to determine how unexpected senatorial vacancies are to be replaced, empowering the chief executive (governor) to direct these decisions. Some states require a special election to fill a vacancy, and a few require the governor to appoint a replacement of the same political party as the previous incumbent.

Lautenberg's death reveals just how politically delicate, not to mention expensive, a decision to fill a suddenly vacated seat can be in a state like New Jersey. Whatever the political and material costs in this case, clearer election guidelines in a state like New Jersey would surely help ensure these decisions run more smoothly and fairly in the future.

How much do you trust the information in this article?

Rachel George

Rachel is a PhD candidate in International Relations at the London School of Economics. She holds a BA in Politics from Princeton and an MA in Middle Eastern Studies from Harvard. Her interests include journalism, U.S. foreign policy, human rights, and international law.

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