Just one day after the death of U.S. Senator Frank Lautenberg, Gov. Chris Christie outlined a brisk plan to replace the senior statesman.
Christie called for a pair of special elections to fill Lautenberg's seat. A primary election will be held Aug. 13. The general election will be Oct. 16, less than three weeks before the regularly scheduled gubernatorial and legislative elections on Nov. 5.
"The citizens of New Jersey need to have an elected representative to the United States Senate, and have it as soon as possible," Christie said, in a Statehouse press conference Tuesday afternoon.
Christie said he'll appoint a temporary replacement to serve through Oct. 16 within the next several days.
In choosing to hold a special election, Christie sidestepped a potential legal battle. In the hours since Lautenberg's death, Democratic and Republican operatives had been sparring over whether state law required Christie to call for an election in November of this year, or whether it allowed him to wait until Nov. 2014, when Lautenberg's term expires.
Had Christie scheduled the election for 2014, he could have given his appointee, presumably a Republican, an 18-month record as an incumbent and theoretically a better shot at winning the eventual election.
By holding the election in October, Christie bypasses that argument, but also potentially insulates himself from any political damage that could come from having the senate race on the same ballot as the gubernatorial race.
Christie has a wide lead over his presumed Democratic challenger, state Sen. Barbara Buono (D-Edison). However, some have suggested Buono could narrow that gap if she were on the same ballot as a popular Democratic senate candidate, such as Newark Mayor Cory Booker.
Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-East Orange), herself a potential senate candidate, suggested Christie was only looking out for himself by scheduling the senate election three weeks before the regular general election.
"The November general election date is what's best for taxpayers and voter turn-out," she said. "It's unquestionably the best option, but Gov. Christie has chosen to put partisan politics and his self-interest first."
Oliver's office said each election will cost $11.9 million, meaning the state will pay nearly $24 million in total to find Lautenberg's replacement.
At his press conference, Christie denied that politics played any role in the scheduling, saying it was dictated by statute and the need to act as quickly as possible.
Christie said he's got a list of potential appointees in his head, but declined to name names. He also said he won't place preconditions on the appointee – meaning the determination of whether the appointee would be a "placeholder" or a candidate in October's election would be up the appointee.
Anyone wishing to fill the seat needs to act fast. Christie said his office will put out an election timeline later in the day, but he said would-be candidates will need to get 1,000 signatures within the next two weeks (*see update below*)in order to qualify for the primary. He said that ought to be plenty of time.
"If a statewide candidate can't get 1,000 signatures in two weeks, in my opinion and my experience, they have no business running for statewide office," he said.
UPDATE: Would-be candidates will have even less time than Christie said at his press conference. The New Jersey Division of Elections said late Tuesday that candidate petitions would be due June 10, giving candidates less than a week to gather their signatures.