After the death of U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg, Gov. Chris Christie faced a couple of tricky choices. His decisions amount to one hit and one very expensive miss.
Christie made a good choice in appointing Attorney General Jeff Chiesa as a caretaker senator.
But his call for a special election in October is an unnecessary, self-serving waste of money.
Chiesa has never held elected office and is a Christie loyalist, which has led critics to charge that he will be the governor's puppet. But in reality, no one Christie appointed to go to Washington for the next five months would vary much from the governor's views. And importantly, Chiesa, who is respected by both parties, has said he will not run in the fall to try to hold onto the seat.
Christie could have appointed a replacement to serve until the next regular Senate election in November 2014. Appointing a fellow Republican for that long might have gained him some points with the national party, but it wouldn't have played well in New Jersey, a blue state that hasn't elected a Republican to the Senate since 1972.
But why hold a special Senate election in October, when we already have a general election scheduled in November? The problem for Christie there was more personal. The inclusion of a strong Democratic Senate candidate on the November ballot could have helped state Sen. Barbara Buono, Christie's opponent in his bid to be re-elected governor. At least it could have diminished his victory margin and reduced the influence he might have in carrying fellow Republicans into the state Legislature.
So Christie has called for a special Senate primary on Aug. 13 and a special election on Oct. 16.
In doing so, the governor gets to have it both ways. He can appear statesmanlike by talking about how important it is that voters get to pick their new senator this year. And he avoids having a popular Democrat who could energize voters at the top of the ballot in November.
Unfortunately, the state Office of Legislative Services estimates the October election will cost almost $12 million. That's a lot of taxpayer money for Christie to spend just to give himself an advantage in an election he already is expected to win handily.
There's good reason to fill Lautenberg's seat with an elected senator this year. Christie is right that 18 months is too long for an appointee to represent New Jersey in Washington.
But there's no public interest served by holding the special election three weeks before the general election and spending millions of dollars to do it. The beneficiary here is Christie, who brags about stabilizing taxes and reducing spending - and who closed women's health clinics to save $7 million.
Christie has one eye on the 2016 presidential election, and it remains to be seen how this will play nationally. Certainly it should make it harder for him to claim to be a fiscal conservative.
Here in New Jersey, residents should have no illusions about the reasoning behind the election date. Even in a state used to no-holds-barred politics, this is a shameless move.