The N.J. Special-Election Winner Is … Chris Christie

Posted October 15, 2013 at 4:31pm

Newark Mayor Cory Booker is expected to cruise to victory Wednesday in the New Jersey Senate special election, punching his ticket to Congress amid battles over the government shutdown and raising the debt ceiling.

While the contest turned out to be largely smooth sailing for the ambitious mayor and Twitter star, the political future of Republican Gov. Chris Christie was no less debated when the race to replace the late Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg, D-N.J., kicked off in early June.

The potential 2016 presidential candidate — who was at the Capitol last week meeting with Senate Republican leaders — was swiftly slammed by some on both sides for his decision to set the special election on Oct. 16, three weeks before his own re-election contest.

Christie is also expected to coast to victory in early November — likely by a larger margin than Booker. One New Jersey Republican source noted that, if anything, the dichotomy between the two outcomes will only further crystallize Christie as a “unique” player in an increasingly partisan national environment.

“I don’t think the Senate election outcome says much about Christie’s future, except that if Booker wins handily even after running a lackluster campaign, it will underscore just how blue New Jersey is, and how unique Christie is to be able to carry it,” the source said.

With a significant financial and name-identification advantage, Booker has held double-digit leads in every public poll released to date in this Democratic-leaning state. That’s despite criticism of his campaign for failing to quickly define the Republican nominee, conservative activist Steve Lonegan, which may have led to an even larger margin heading into the election.

It will likely prove difficult to stick the blame on Christie for yet another Republican loss in New Jersey. The governor endorsed Lonegan, his former primary foe from his 2009 campaign, but he did not actively campaign for him. The GOP hasn’t won a Senate seat in the Garden State since 1972.

“I honestly don’t think it has any bearing on his political future,” New Jersey-based Republican consultant Chris Russell said of the special-election outcome. “The governor will be judged on his performance in a couple of weeks against [state Sen. Barbara] Buono.”

Some Republicans had hoped holding the elections concurrently could provide downballot assistance to the eventual GOP Senate nominee. Whatever the reason, the move to hold the contests on separate dates ensured that the popular Booker would not increase Democratic turnout and possibly diminish Christie’s winning margin.

The vague election law statute appeared to give Christie several options for setting the special-election date. Options included setting it for November or even possibly appointing an interim senator until 2014. That would have given the party an extra vote in the Senate at least for another year, though it would have undoubtedly invited a legal challenge from Democrats.

Christie fervently denied at the time that the move was self-serving, and four months later — whether Booker wins or loses — there is zero evidence his national political interests will take a hit as a result.

“I don’t think that will be a significant issue” in 2016, Republican strategist Henry Barbour said. “What will matter is his record and ability to connect with primary voters.”

Whether Christie can win over conservative primary voters around the country remains to be seen, but he will likely have at least another year to craft his gubernatorial legacy ahead of a presidential bid launched in 2015.

A Monmouth University poll released Tuesday found Christie leading his Democratic challenger, Buono, 59 percent to 35 percent. That’s in a state President Barack Obama carried in 2012 by 17 points.

“We are looking at a potential 20-point margin in a blue state and an outright win among Hispanic voters,” Monmouth polling director Patrick Murray said in a statement. “What more could a 2016 GOP presidential contender ask for?”