TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — Republican Gov. Chris Christie on Tuesday set an October special election to fill the U.S. Senate seat made vacant by Democrat Frank Lautenberg's death, giving voters the quickest possible say on who will represent them in Washington but preserving Christie as the top attraction on November's ballot.
Christie's primary day announcement means there will be statewide elections three weeks apart, a rare occurrence that Democrats immediately criticized as wasteful and designed to help the governor's political position by preventing the possibility he would be on the ballot with a well-known Democrat, Newark Mayor Cory Booker, who's expected to pursue the Senate seat.
"It's as if he gave the residents of this state the finger" by adding election expenses, Democratic state Sen. Richard Codey said. "Instead of holding an expensive special election that tries to protect the governor's political vulnerabilities, the voters should have the opportunity to have their say in the regular election in November."
Christie also said he would appoint someone by next week to fill the Senate seat until the special election but didn't say who it might be.
Christie's announcement, hours before he brushed aside a token challenge in the Republican gubernatorial primary, was the latest development in a whirlwind of political intrigue since Lautenberg's death early Monday. Christie's long-presumed opponent, state Sen. Barbara Buono, easily captured the Democratic nomination.
Although state law appears to give the governor a lot of power to decide how to handle a vacant U.S. Senate seat, whatever Christie decided would certainly have upset members of some important constituency: the New Jersey Democrats who have helped give him high approval ratings, the New Jersey Republicans who would like the Senate spot or Republicans across the country considering whether they want him to be their presidential nominee in 2016.
Christie said that after the death of Lautenberg, who was first elected to the Senate in 1982, the most important thing was to let democracy rule and to do it quickly. He said the Senate primary will be Aug. 31 and general balloting Oct. 16.
"The people need to have a voice and choice," Christie said at the State House.
In opting for a primary rather than letting each major party's political committee select a nominee, he said he didn't want "insiders and a few party elites to determine who the nominee of the Republican Party and the Democratic Party will be."
His decision leaves some disappointment for members of his own party and his opponents. Behind the scenes, Republicans had pushed for Christie to appoint a Republican and put off the Senate election until November 2014 to give the appointee time to build a following among voters.
Democrats and political analysts said they believe the Senate election could have been delayed by 20 days to save the $12 million it costs the state to run an election and to hold the vote Nov. 5, when voters in the Democratic-leaning state will decide whether to re-elect Christie to a second term.
There's nothing in the law that would have stopped Christie from holding the Senate election the day of this year's general election or on the November election date next year, said Frank Askin, director of the Constitutional Rights Clinic at the Rutgers-Newark School of Law.
If Christie had chosen the latter date, Askin said, Democrats would have challenged the decision and the state Supreme Court may have ordered the election held this November.
"It seems to me the option he chose was the only one that guarantees he will not be in an election with Cory Booker running on the Democratic line," Askin said.
Booker, who has a national following, announced last year that he was considering a run for Lautenberg's seat. Lautenberg at first bristled at Booker's candidacy but then announced in February that he would not seek re-election next year and would retire when his term expired at the beginning of 2015.
Lautenberg died after suffering complications from pneumonia. He was 89. His funeral is scheduled for Wednesday.
Booker could drive to the polls Democrats who might not otherwise be inclined to turn out for the little-known Buono. Booker campaign spokesman Kevin Griffis said Tuesday he would make an announcement "at the appropriate time."
U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone, a Democrat, previously had expressed interest in the seat. The state says candidates have until June 10 to file petitions.
The Democratic primary could be divisive, which could help Christie, said Rider University political scientist Ben Dworkin.
"The Democrats have to go through what may be a bitter and intense primary," Dworkin said. "They may not all be friendly by the time October happens."
Christie holds a clear advantage against Buono in terms of polling and funding, and a landslide victory would help him make a compelling argument to GOP voters should he seek the presidency.
Republican operatives in key presidential states acknowledged the unusual timing of Christie's decision but said the move reinforces his image as a brash leader who often plays by his own rules.
"It's Chris Christie. He's going to do what he wants how he wants to do it," South Carolina-based Republican operative Hogan Gidley said. "Some people love him for it, and some people don't."
New Hampshire-based GOP operative and tea party supporter Andrew Hemmingway said Christie's special election decision likely wouldn't hurt his standing among conservatives as much as his sometimes-moderate policies and praise of Democratic President Barack Obama's response to Superstorm Sandy, which pummeled the state last fall. He said he marvels at Christie's ability to grab attention.
"This is definitely a strategic move by him to do what Chris Christie is very good at doing: maintain and grabbing any little glimmer of spotlight there is," Hemmingway said.
Christie could announce an interim successor as early as Thursday. He is expected to name a Republican and could look to a member of Congress, a state legislator, a member of his staff or an elder statesman in the party, such as former Gov. Tom Kean Sr. All Christie would say Tuesday was that his list contained between one and 100 names and that he would choose someone regardless of whether he or she was interested in running for the seat in 2014.
It's unclear which Republicans might run. Possibilities include state Sens. Tom Kean Jr. and Joseph Kyrillos, who have run for the Senate in the past. The lawmakers would be in a good spot to seek the office because the October election date would mean they wouldn't have to abandon their seats in the state Legislature to do it.
Christie said he's not obligated to nominate someone in line philosophically with the liberal Lautenberg. Christie plans to have the temporary representative in place when the Senate begins debating immigration reform next week.
Christie said he'd choose someone who would not seek his guidance for every decision, but Dworkin, the Rider political scientist, said the appointee would be viewed as an extension of Christie.
"People will look at the Christie appointee," Dworkin said, "as, 'Here's how Christie would have voted had he been in Washington.'"
Associated Press writers Geoff Mulvihill in Trenton, Ken Thomas in New York and Steve Peoples in Boston contributed to this report.