By Patrick Murray
For all of you who were bored with the governor’s race,
I have solved your problems. – Gov. Chris Christie
New Jersey’s U.S. Senate campaign is on! Every one of the alternatives Chris Christie considered to fill the vacancy posed a different set of risks and benefits. True to his reputation as an astute strategist, he chose the option that maximized his own future political prospects.
Certainly, there will be fallout from this decision. National Republicans are irked that they are not guaranteed a party vote in the Senate for the next 17 months. They are joined by state GOP leaders in being annoyed that a Republican appointee won’t have time to raise visibility and money for an incumbent campaign in 2014.
Republicans wanted Christie to hold out for the 2014 option. But that choice posed a serious risk. It would most certainly have gone to the New Jersey Supreme Court. The court could not only have determined that the Senate election needed to be held this year but also directed that it be held on the same day as the regular general election.
Despite his denials, Gov. Christie does not want to run on a ballot where the U.S. Senate race is at the top of the ticket. Otherwise he could have saved the state an estimated $12 million and held the special election concurrently with the general election, rather than three weeks earlier on Oct. 16.
A Senate race on the same ballot would have certainly increased Democratic turnout – whether the nominee is Cory Booker or Frank Pallone – both of whom are running – or even Rush Holt or Bill Pascrell – who are considering a run. Voters, especially Democrats, are more likely to turn out for competitive races. This would almost certainly put any of the supposed five or six competitive legislative races out of Republicans’ reach.
Christie himself is unlikely to lose in this scenario, but he would suffer a significant loss to his presidential prospects. His main campaign strategy has always been to stand on the stage with a half dozen more conservative Republicans seeking their party’s presidential nomination and announce: “Our main priority should be to back the White House. Anyone on this stage who has won a blue state by 20 points, raise your hand!”
Winning by a 10 or 12 point margin or even – gasp – by the high single digits would be a major setback to Christie’s 2016 strategy.
At the end of the day, a quick special election was the one option where Christie knew he could maintain control over the process. The conflicting state statutes on Congressional vacancies agree that the governor has this authority.
So yes, some GOP leaders and conservatives are annoyed at him right now. But Christie’s banking this will blow over by the time the presidential process begins. Moreover, holding a special election shortly before the regularly scheduled general election may actually boost Christie’s victory margin.
Turnout in this special election will be very low – 35 percent of registered voters is my rough guess. As a consequence, there are some voters who will only take part in one election, pushing turnout in the November general election down to about 50 percent. It usually approaches 60 percent during gubernatorial years.
This turnout fatigue will affect partisans of both stripes. However, it’s much more likely to affect Democratic voters than Republicans. Many Democrats will show up for a Senate race that looks positive for their party and sit out the subsequent general election where their party’s candidate is likely to lose.
This special election has an added benefit for the state GOP. It is now more likely that they could pick off some Democratic incumbents in the state legislature. Among all the possible alternatives, Christie’s decision to hold the special election in October was absolutely the worst possible outcome for New Jersey Democrats.
Yes, the Democrats will almost certainly win the U.S. Senate seat. It’s unlikely that the Republican nominee will be able to raise the kind of cash that Booker or even Pallone can. Moreover, Christie is unlikely to free up his GOTV (Get Out The Vote) resources to do double-duty for the senate race.
Democratic power brokers won’t pour money into the senate race either. They really care about state and local races. That’s where their bread is buttered.
This special election poses a real threat to their control of at least one chamber of the legislature. In other words, Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr.’s supposed pipe dream of taking control of the State Senate now seems much more realistic.
Patrick Murray is the founding director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute. Established in 2005, the institute has become a premier independent survey research center known for its in-depth tracking of public policy and quality of life issues. Murray was named Pollster of the Year by PolitickerNJ.com and one of the 100 most influential people in New Jersey politics.