By Dennis “DJ” Mikolay
Immediately following the passing of Senator Frank Lautenberg, the progressive Democrat who represented the Garden State in Washington between 1982 and 2001, and again from 2003 until last week, there was intense speculation regarding what protocol would be followed to determine his successor. Republicans, perhaps overly anxious to reclaim a seat that hasn’t been filled by the GOP in over forty years, crossed their fingers in hopes Governor Christie would appoint a conservative to the position, effectively breaking the four-decades of Democratic leadership, a trend that likely wouldn’t end if left to New Jersey’s voters.
Governor Christie, who is obviously concerned with his own re-election, would have to engage in a careful balancing act if he were to please both sides—those who wanted an appointment and those who desired an election—without endangering his standing within his own party and the independents who will almost certainly carry him to victory this November. And so, a decision was made: former Attorney General Jeffrey Chiesa would temporarily be appointed to the Senate, where he will reside until a special election is held this October.
The decision, which has thus far done little to jeopardize the incumbent’s chances of victory, has still unleashed a fair amount of criticism. The Democrats have already expressed their intentions to file a lawsuit to have the election rescheduled for November. Not surprisingly, Senator Barbara Buono, the Democratic gubernatorial nominee, counts herself among those who oppose Governor Christie’s decision; her campaign, which disseminated several criticisms of the current plan via Twitter, hasn’t minced words, and accused the incumbent of “wasting $24 million of your money on a [special election].” Another Tweet asked, “What would you rather spend $24 million on? Property tax relief or [Governor Christie’s Special Election]?”
Though it is certainly nice to think that after decades of irresponsibility, Trenton’s progressive Democrats are suddenly sincerely concerned with government spending, there is a strategic reason for Senator Buono to oppose and fear the upcoming special election, namely that it represents nothing but bad news for her own fledgling campaign.
The Senate race will likely see high Democratic turnout, as progressives will want to place a similar voice to Lautenberg in Washington, guaranteeing their agenda will continue to advance with minimal interruption. Unfortunately, because the election is being held in October, three weeks before the gubernatorial race ends, Senator Buono will not reap the benefits of down-ticket partisan voting that would be present if the two elections were held on the same day. Progressives, at least those that aren’t devout Democratic partisans, are unlikely to turn out to the polls twice within four weeks given the apparent futility of Senator Buono’s gubernatorial candidacy.
The fact that the Democrats can (and very likely, will) manage to elect Lautenberg’s successor is also bad news for Senator Buono’s ill-funded campaign. Those who were hesitant to lend financial support before Senator Lautenberg’s passing almost certainly won’t do so now, recognizing that their money is better spent funding a candidate who could actually win, someone in the mold of Cory Booker or Frank Pallone, two of the speculated Democratic Senatorial nominees. The futility of the Republican effort, particularly if a galvanizing ideologue like former Mayor Steve Lonegan (a vocal critic of Governor Christie who ran against him in the 2009 primaries) becomes their nominee, will keep the Senate race far enough away from incumbent Governor as to not hurt his own re-election, but will also inspire Democrats to participate in the process. Press, cash, and volunteers that otherwise would have lethargically headed towards Senator Buono out of a sense of obligation or fear of Republicanism will now likely channel actual enthusiasm into a completely different race, a winnable one, held on an earlier date, without other candidates on the ballot.
So, regardless of what her campaign claims, keep in mind the real reason that Senator Buono and those in her inner circle oppose the special election: its all about their pocketbooks, not yours.