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New Jersey voters elected the self-made multimillionaire to five six-year terms in the U.S. Senate, where he battled on behalf of smoking bans, gun control, airline safety and rail transportation.
First elected in 1982, he left office in 2000, saying he was tired of raising money for his campaigns. But two years later he came out of retirement when former Senator Robert Torricelli was forced to drop his re-election bid amid corruption charges.
The controversy over replacing Lautenberg in the Senate started almost immediately after his death when Christie on Tuesday called the special election and said he would appoint a replacement until then within the week.
Christie’s own political aspirations were seen to be at stake in his decision. Democrats accused him of self-interest and wasteful spending by staging the special election just three weeks ahead of the Nov. 5 general election, when he is seeking re-election.
They say he should have scheduled both contests on the same day but that he was avoiding being on the same ballot as Booker, who could attract both strong Democratic and minority turnout.
If Christie wins the governorship by a large margin, he could position himself as a Republican who can win other Democratic states.
Christie could have chosen a replacement to fill Lautenberg’s seat through 2014, but any pick posed political danger.
A conservative choice would have pleased Republicans angry over Christie’s close working relationship with President Obama in the wake of Superstorm Sandy but could have endangered Christie’s standing with Democrats in his home state.
However, some Republicans were angered that Christie opted not to fill the seat for longer, costing their party what could have been a hold on it for more than a year and a half.
The balance of power in the Senate is now held by Democrats, 54-45, with one vacancy.
A primary election on August 13 will decide the Republican and Democratic nominees for the October special election.