As I wrote earlier today, people who thought the death of Senator Frank Lautenberg put New Jersey Governor Chris Christie in a tight spot underestimated the strength of his position and overestimated the trouble the opening up of the seat might cause him. The governor acted with characteristic decisiveness this afternoon by announcing that he was calling a special election for October to replace Lautenberg while not saying who would fill the seat during the next four months. This didn’t please national Republicans who would have liked Christie to make the appointment be one that lasts until November 2014, when the next federal election is held. And New Jersey Democrats are crying foul about the fact that this will mean the state’s voters will be asked to go to the polls twice within a month, first to just elect a senator who will be up for re-election in 13 months and then in November for the regularly scheduled vote for governor and the entire state legislature, costing the state tens of millions.
But no one should be under any illusions that these complaints will have the least impact on Christie’s chances of reelection or of getting the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. Though the decision was delivered with an equally characteristic self-serving cynicism, Christie came out on top here, as he always seems to do, maximizing the personal benefits of the situation while diminishing his rivals.
Let’s first dispense with the question of whether Christie should have made the appointment one that would last until the end of 2014. His failure to do so does hurt the Republicans in the Senate, as the odds are that, barring a miracle, the seat will revert to the Democrats after the October special election. But his stated reasons for that decision—the principles of democracy—are pure New Jersey baloney. The state law regarding such appointments is ambiguous enough to allow for a long appointment, but it would have been challenged in court by Democrats who are confident about the liberal judiciary there backing up their gambit. A 2013 Senate election allows Christie to avoid that mess as well as preventing voters in that blue state from associating him with a move that would strengthen a very conservative GOP caucus.
This will cause some hard feelings in Washington Republican circles, but most will understand that Christie’s first obligation is to get re-elected. Besides, if he does enter the 2016 race, there will be other reasons for the right to resist Christie. Doing anything to please people who will probably never support him in a presidential primary isn’t worth his time.
As for scheduling what seems to be an unnecessary special election, Christie has opened himself up to charges of doing exactly the thing that he complains about when other people are in power: wasting money. The notion that the extra month gained by an elected senator from the time of the governor’s appointment is worth the trouble is absurd, especially since the senator that wins in October will have to turn around and run the next year as well.
But the scheduling maximizes Christie’s chances of rolling up a big reelection win in November as well as the possibility that his appeal will help the state GOP take control of both houses of the New Jersey legislature. Had the special election been on the same day, a popular Democratic Senate candidate like Newark Mayor Corey Booker might have generated a big minority turnout that would have lowered Christie’s totals and helped his opposition in Trenton. But if those minorities turn out in October, the odds are, many, if not most will stay home in November allowing that Election Day to belong to Christie.
Those who claim this shows Christie is afraid of Booker are forgetting that it was the mayor who ducked the governor’s race this year specifically because he knows he couldn’t beat Christie. But separating the Senate race from the state elections maximizes Christie’s chances of making the kind of splash in a blue state that will enhance his presidential credentials. The special election also makes it harder on Booker because it allows incumbent Democratic members of Congress to try their chances against him without losing their seats.
The point here is that even though Christie’s public rationale for these decisions rings false, his ability to stick to his self-righteous story will allow him to ignore the criticisms. If all goes as planned, he will be reelected easily, be able to govern with a more pliable legislature and then be able to consider a presidential run with a landslide win to his credit. If some conservatives or Democrats think he doesn’t play fair or tell the truth about his motivations, they’re right. But this won’t cost him many votes.
For all of the brickbats his decision earns him, Christie remains in the catbird seat and anyone who thinks different doesn’t understand how he thinks or what he stands to gain this year.