'The People Must Choose': Christie Opts for Special Election to Fill Senate Seat

WASHINGTON – New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie plans to conduct a special election in October to fill the unexpired term of the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg, provoking a scramble among hopefuls in both parties looking to grab the seat.

Saying “the people must choose,” Christie moved Tuesday to end at least part of the speculation surrounding the vacant post, announcing that a primary will be conducted on Aug. 13, with the survivors facing off on Oct. 16. The victor will fill out the remainder of Lautenberg’s term, which ends in January 2015. Whoever wins likely will seek a full six-year term in the November 2014 election.

The governor also intends to appoint a replacement until the election. His choice is expected later this week, sometime shortly after Lautenberg’s burial on Wednesday. Christie hasn’t indicated whether he intends to choose a caretaker or someone who may vie for the remainder of the unexpired term.

About the only sure thing is Christie will opt for a fellow Republican to replace Lautenberg, a Democrat.

“I’m going to pick a person I believe to be the best person,” he said in making the election announcement. “I do have a list in my head. You all know me. I don’t dawdle.”

The decision puts to rest speculation about the path Christie intended to pursue. New Jersey has conflicting statutes on how to fill an unexpired senatorial term. One allows the governor to make a temporary appointment until the next general election – in this case, Nov. 5. But another state law maintains if the vacancy occurs within 70 days of the primary – it did in this case, the New Jersey primary was Tuesday – the governor can call a special election to fill the vacancy.

There was some speculation that Christie might choose a strong Republican contender and let him or her serve out the remainder of Lautenberg’s unexpired term, giving the GOP a leg up on potential Democratic foes when the seat comes up on Nov. 5, 2014.

Instead he opted for a quick election, maintaining that pending issues are “too great to be determined by an appointee for a period of 18 months.”

“I want to have an elected senator as soon as possible,” he said.

The decision could prove costly – the New Jersey Office of Legislative Services estimates that the combined primary and special election could cost the state $24 million. But it relieves some of the political pressure Christie faced over the timing.

Christie is in the midst of his own re-election campaign. He currently holds what some polls point to as a 30-point lead over his challenger, state Sen. Barbara Buono. But GOP insiders maintained that the governor wanted to avoid conducting the Senate and gubernatorial election on the same day.