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 naked political 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 from Texas who was once GOP House majority leader, called the October special election “debilitating stupidity.”
In an interview with ABC, he predicted it would backfire with Republicans because Christie was stressing fiscal responsibility as governor, yet willing to waste millions on special elections.
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 often combative style and quick wit have made him popular in New Jersey, an attraction as a fundraiser for Republicans across the country and a frequent guest on TV talk shows.
Last year, he worked closely with Obama in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy and hugged the president when he visited storm-devastated parts of New Jersey. That drew criticism from some Republicans, who said he was too cozy with the president days before Obama was re-elected. But the blowback this time is more widespread.
When he unveiled the plan Tuesday, Christie portrayed it as a nonpolitical move designed to uphold democratic principles by giving voters a say in their representation as quickly 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 election 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 a span of less than three months.
“It’s as if he gave the residents of this state the finger,” Democratic state Sen. Richard Codey said.
“Instead of holding an expensive special election that tries to protect the governor’s political vulnerabilities,” he said, “the voters should have the opportunity to have their say in the regular election in November.”
Booker and Rep. Frank Pallone, both well-financed Democrats, had previously expressed interest in the seat held by Lautenberg, a Democrat whose term expires 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.
On the Republican side, some lawmakers are reportedly considering running for the Senate, along with some political outsiders, including Al Leiter, a former major league pitcher who is now a broadcaster. Conservative activist Steve Lonegan, a former mayor of Bogota, N.J., said he is gathering signatures and raising money for a run.
Even though New Jersey elected Christie as governor, 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 to the Senate 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, giving the GOP choice some time to gain voters’ respect.
“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. Rogers said the special election is the latest issue to give him misgivings about Christie, starting with the governor’s willingness to appear with Obama along the Jersey shore shortly before the 2012 election.
Now, with the Senate vacancy, “we’re afraid that he might make a moderate decision on this replacement,” Rogers said. “If he believes in his own conservative principles and he has an opportunity, he needs to take it — he needs to find the most conservative individual.”