ANGELA DELLI SANTI
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.