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With special election decision, Christie helps himself too

In a decision with implications for his own re-election this fall, the next presidential campaign and the GOP in Washington, New Jersey Republican Gov. Chris Christie on Tuesday called for a special election to be held this year to choose the successor to the late Democratic Sen. Frank Lautenberg.

Christie announced at a press conference that he had opted against appointing a successor to Lautenberg to serve until the 2014 election, and scheduled a general election on Oct. 16. The primary will be held in August. Christie also said he would appoint an interim senator to serve between now and November, though he explained that he had not decided on that temporary appointee yet.

With this decision, Christie is potentially helping create the conditions for a big win in his re-election contest against Democrat Barbara Buono this November.  Without a contested Senate campaign happening at the same time as his own re-election, turnout among Democrats is likely to be far lower, allowing Christie to run up the margin of victory in a race he is already a big favorite to win.

That, in turn, could make him look like a more formidable presidential candidate in 2016 should he choose to run.

Julio Cortez / AP

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie talks to the press after casting his primary election vote, Tuesday, June 4, 2013, in Mendham Township, N.J.

The governor argued that a special election is the fairest choice to quickly fill the open seat.

“This is about guaranteeing the people of New Jersey both a choice and a voice in the process,” Christie said. “The right thing to do is to let the people decide, and let them decide as soon as possible.”

The primary will be held on Tuesday, Aug. 13 – a decision Christie stressed would take the choice away from party bosses.

“I will not permit the insiders and a few party elites to determine who the nominee of the Republican Party and the Democratic party will be,” Christie said.

The governor was openly defiant that such a strategy was the reason for his decision, saying he followed the letter of the law to let the people pick, and political calculations played no role in his timetable.

But Christie’s decision to hold a special election in October could also be a gamble, leaving the governor open to criticisms of making a self-serving decision and causing a hefty financial cost to the state that could run as high as $24 million for the special election.

Christie said he wasn’t aware of what the cost would be – but in typical Christie fashion, said it didn’t matter.

“I don’t know what the cost is, and quite frankly I don’t care,” he said. “The cost cannot be measured against the value of having an elected representative in the United States Senate when so many important issues are being debated this year."

While many Democrats accused Christie of needlessly inviting an extra cost upon New Jersey taxpayers – all while avoiding a special Senate election on the same day that voters decide on Christie’s own re-election – the governor’s decision won the praise of the Senate’s top Democrat.

“I think it’s the right thing to do,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., told reporters on Capitol Hill.

Senate Democrats seemed pleased by Christie’s decision, while gleefully pointing out the governor likely frustrated his own party with his timetable.

“Republicans have not won a Senate race in New Jersey in more than 40 years. Their only shot was an appointee who had a year and a half to establish themselves before an election in 2014,” said Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesman Matt Canter. “With this news I assume operatives at the NRSC are busy planning Christie’s defeat in Iowa and New Hampshire right now.”

The option was the least preferable for Senate Republicans, who were not only looking forward to having an extra vote in the Senate for an extended period but also hoped they could make this contest competitive. 

The choice of an October special is likely to placate no one on either side of the aisle, and enrage conservatives even more than Democrats – causing him headaches in a potential 2016 GOP primary.

Republicans made no secret they preferred a 2014 special election, allowing a Republican to take the Democrat-held seat for over a year and a half, and allowing a strong GOP candidate, preferably one appointed by Christie, to build up a moderate voting record and robust campaign.

A NewsNation panel shares their thoughts on the special election and who may fill the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg's Senate seat.

With Christie on the ballot this November, Republicans at the state level especially hoped for down-ballot help in state legislative races. GOP strategists also feared that a special election would help Democratic turnout, especially among African Americans, if popular Newark Mayor Cory Booker, who was already running for Lautenberg’s seat, is the nominee.

Democrats, however, hoped for a November 2013 contest for exactly the opposite reason. Buono hasn’t been able to raise money and mount a serious challenge to the governor, but if a competitive special election drove up turnout among Democrats, they could at least cut the margin and minimize Christie’s coattails on other races.

Possibly the biggest risk Christie faces though – tarnishing his fiscally conservative brand and saddling the state with two elections that could cost upwards of $24 million. According to an advisory opinion from the New Jersey Office of Legislative Services, obtained by NBC News, the cost for both a primary and a general is approximately $11.9 million each, instead of holding them concurrent with the November 5, 2013, general election.

Democrats will be all too eager to make that point in his re-election contest, where Christie has campaigned on cutting spending as governor. An NBC News/Marist poll from last month showed the incumbent with a more than two-to-one lead over Buono, with 58 percent approving of his handling of the state’s budget.

Despite being close to Booker, Christie may have done inadvertent harm to the Democrat’s bid. Booker’s now all but certain to face a primary, likely from Rep. Frank Pallone and maybe even Rep. Rush Holt. And because of the timing of the election, neither would have to give up their safe House seats to run. Booker is still the favorite going into a Democratic primary, but he’ll have a competitive race that might have been avoided otherwise. A later race would have given Booker a bigger financial edge, and could make it harder for him to distance himself from his advance Senate announcement and the lashing the late Lautenberg gave him. And, Booker too could answer in a Democratic primary for his cozy relationship with Christie.

The October decision could save Christie legal wrangling and a court battle over the date, particularly if he had tried to wait until 2014. Democrats could still wage legal action, wanting a November contest, and while Republicans haven’t publicly raised the specter of suing, legal action against one of their most prominent Republicans isn’t exactly the press Christie, or the GOP, would want.

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