New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) yesterday appointed Attorney General Jeff Chiesa (R) to replace the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D) who was laid to rest on Wednesday. Chiesa is a long-time associate of the governor’s, having served with him in a law firm and Christie’s US Attorney’s office before being appointed attorney general. Chiesa said he will not enter the special election, therefore he will serve only through the conclusion of the short special election cycle now scheduled for Oct. 16.
Also yesterday, Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ-12) sent an email message to supporters announcing himself as a candidate in the New Jersey special Senate election and asking for help in collecting the 1,000 valid registered voter signatures to qualify him for the ballot.
In his email, Holt said his reason for running “is simple.” He believes that he is “… the best candidate to continue the passionate advocacy for progressive values that Sen. Lautenberg exemplified.”
As you will remember, Gov. Christie scheduled the 2013 vote to replace Lautenberg despite the seat being in-cycle during 2014. The governor is now taking political heat because he is spending $24 million in taxpayer dollars to hold a special vote just three weeks before the regular Nov. 5 statewide election, when Christie himself faces the voters. His motive in not joining the two elections is clearly to avoid an increased turnout from Democrats desiring to elect their Senate nominee, and who would likely vote for gubernatorial nominee Barbara Buono while in the voting booth.
The special Senate Democratic primary, the contest that will attract the greatest interest because this is where the new senator will likely be chosen, is scheduled for Aug. 13. It is highly probable that the winning Democrat will be projected as a heavy favorite for the special general.
The perceived early leader is Newark Mayor Cory Booker, who had already been running for what would have been Lautenberg’s open seat in the 2014 election. Prior to his death, the senator had announced that he was not seeking re-election to a sixth non-consecutive term. Also joining the race is Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ-6).
Commonly viewed as the third-place candidate at the beginning of this short election cycle, Holt’s clear strategy is to move as far left as possible to capture the hardcore liberal base. While his plan makes sense in one context — the liberal base outside of the Newark/Northern New Jersey area could still be wide open — it may allow Pallone to attract Democrats living in the more rural southern part of the state and those in the six Republican districts.
With three viable candidates jockeying for position against each other, the contender with the strongest base normally triumphs. That person is probably Booker, but in all low-turnout elections — and particularly ones scheduled in the middle of August — the candidate with the best grassroots organization will have an increased advantage. Certain NJ Democratic activists think Rep. Pallone may well be that candidate.
Booker will obviously be strong in Newark and with the state’s African-American population, but his city ties may be a negative downstate and in the more conservative regions. Pallone, whose 6th District border’s Holt’s 12th, represents the New Jersey area around Staten Island, which then travels southeast through Perth Amboy before ending in Asbury Park. Holt’s seat begins in the Brunswick region, then travels southwest through Princeton and ends in the capital city of Trenton.
Rush Holt’s father, Rush D. Holt, Sr., was elected to the US Senate from the state of West Virginia in 1934, at the age of 29. He lost the 1940 Democratic primary, and then died in 1941 at 35 when Rush Jr. was only six years old. His mother, Helen Holt, was the first woman appointed as West Virginia Secretary of State.
Congressman Holt was elected to the House in 1998, defeating one-term Rep. Mike Pappas (R-NJ-12). Despite the more Republican nature of the seat, Holt was re-elected in 2000, but then received a more Democratic seat in the 2001 redistricting plan. He has been comfortably re-elected ever since. Neither representatives Holt nor Pallone have to risk their House seats, nor must Booker resign as mayor, to run in the Senate special election.