Senate seat scramble is on in N.J.: how Christie, GOP may benefit from it

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie named state Attorney General Jeffrey Chiesa as a place holder and set a special election to replace the late US Sen. Frank Lautenberg. In a heavily Democratic state, Newark Mayor Cory Booker is the one to watch.

Mel Evans/AP
New Jersey Attorney General Jeffrey Chiesa listens Thursday, in Trenton, N.J., as Gov. Chris Christie announces that Chiesa will temporarily fill the US Senate seat that opened up this week after Frank Lautenberg's death.

The death of US Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D) and a special election called by Gov. Chris Christie (R) have set off a political scramble in New Jersey this week, as candidates to fill the seat of the veteran senator rush to meet a looming filing deadline.

The calendar illustrates the scramble: A candidate must declare his or her candidacy by next Monday, including handing in a petition with 1,000 signatures. There’s to be a primary election Aug. 13, followed by the special election Oct. 16. If whoever wins that election wants to run for a full term, he or she would have to run again next year. [Editor's note: The original version gave the wrong date for the primary.]

Meanwhile, to appoint a place holder in the Senate seat, Christie on Thursday named state Attorney General Jeffrey Chiesa, who has never held elective office and who will not run for the seat.

There may have been some personal political method in Christie’s decision to hold an early primary and election to fill Lautenberg’s seat. Christie himself faces reelection in the regular general election this November, and having a strong Democrat for US Senate at the top of the ballot – in a state where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by 700,000 – might hurt Christie and GOP candidates for other offices.

Among those strong Democrats is Newark Mayor Cory Booker, who had already been considering a run for the US Senate. Aides to Mr. Booker confirm that he’s gathering signatures ahead of Monday’s filing deadline. US Reps. Frank Pallone and Rush Holt are prominently mentioned as other Democrats who might enter the race.

The only declared Republican so far is Steve Lonegan, former mayor of Bogota, N.J. Mr. Lonegan, who ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2005 and 2009, has been a tea party favorite who now heads the New Jersey chapter of the conservative advocacy group Americans for Prosperity.

New Jersey hasn’t elected a Republican to the US Senate since 1972, and behind the scenes, candidates are declining to run, donors are wary, and operatives say the seat is out of reach, writes Robert Costa in the conservative National Review Online.

“He burned us,” a New Jersey Republican consultant told Mr. Costa. “He could have appointed a senator to stay through 2014. Instead, he gave us a weird little primary during beach season.”

Holding the special US Senate election instead of waiting until the regular election three weeks later will cost New Jersey taxpayers an extra $24 million.

The added expense has caused some grumbling – particularly among Democrats who note that that’s the same amount it would have cost to allow New Jersey voters to start voting 14 days early in regular elections. Christie vetoed that Democratic proposal, citing cost as one issue.

“I don’t know what the cost [of the special election] is and I quite frankly don’t care,” Christie said at a news conference Tuesday. “I don’t think you can put a price tag on what it’s worth to have an elected person in the United States Senate.”

In his reelection race, Christie holds a wide edge over Democratic challenger Barbara Buono, a state senator.

“The issue here is that Chris Christie doesn’t want to win by 10 points,” Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University polling institute in West Long Branch, N.J., told Bloomberg News. “He wants to win by 25 points.”

Mr. Chiesa, a Republican, will become New Jersey’s junior US senator next Monday, holding the post until the winner of the special election Oct. 16 takes office. He has agreed not to run for the seat himself.

Chiesa owes much of his professional career to Christie – first as a federal prosecutor under then-US Attorney Christie from 2002 to 2009, then as executive director of Christie’s transition team after the 2009 gubernatorial election, and then as the governor’s chief counsel and state attorney general.

"I've only had these chances because of the governor,” Chiesa has said. “I don't kid myself."

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