NJ-Gov: Can Republicans (Finally) Win?
New Jersey has been fool's gold -- or, in the Fix's favorite metaphor, the equivalent of Lucy holding the football for Charlie Brown -- for Republicans for more than a decade. Every two years (or so) GOPers become convinced that this is the cycle where they break a growing streak of losses.
In 2001 it was the governor's race where Bret Schundler was going to knock off Jim McGreevey. (McGreevey won with 57 percent). In the 2002 Senate race, Doug Forrester was going to beat Bob Torricelli (he probably would have) and then replacement Democratic nominee Frank Lautenberg. (Lautenberg won by 10 points). Fast forward to 2006 when state Sen. Tom Kean Jr. was the man to beat appointed Sen. Bob Menendez (Menendez won 53 percent to 44 percent). And then there was last November's presidential race when aides to Sen. John McCain insisted he was the right candidate to carry the Garden State. (President Barack Obama carried New Jersey by 15 points.)
Given all of that electoral history, it's not surprising that many longtime political observers greeted a new Quinnipiac College poll that showed Gov. Jon Corzine trailing likely Republican nominee Chris Christie 44 percent to 38 percent with a roll of the eyes.
But, maybe -- just maybe -- this is the year that Republicans finally get over the top.
Here's why: Corzine has had a steady run of negative job approval numbers; his résumé as a former senior executive at Goldman Sachs, once considered one of his strongest assets, is now seen as a burden with the struggles of New York's financial sector bleeding into New Jersey (the state's unemployment rate hit a 15-year high in December); and in Christie, a former U.S. Attorney, Republicans finally may have found the quality candidate they have long been searching for.
"People are disappointed in Corzine," said Mike Duhaime, a New Jersey native who managed former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani's presidential bid in 2008. "They don't dislike him. He's just been ineffective."
That sentiment was echoed by a Democratic operative who has done extensive work in the state and was granted anonymity to speak candidly about Corzine's prospects.
"I think this is a real race and it will be close," said the source. "Christie will not wither on the vine like past Republicans."
The Quinnipiac poll seems to bear out that assessment. Going beyond the head to head numbers, there is troubling data for Corzine almost everywhere you look. Independent voters disapprove of the job he is doing by a two-to-one margin and opt for Christie by a 49 percent to 24 percent margin. Only one in three voters say that Corzine deserves to win reelection this fall while 54 percent believe he does not.
While these numbers tell some of the story, there are gaps in the text.
The first is that Corzine has massive personal wealth and a willingness to spend it on his political campaigns. Corzine dropped more than $63 million to win his Senate seat in 2000, spent more than $40 million in his 2005 gubernatorial bid and has already said he plans to dip into his own pocket for his 2009 reelection campaign. (Detractors note that the economic downturn has likely lessened Corzine's ability to spend on the race -- lessened maybe but not eliminated.)
The second is that New Jersey voters are famously fickle, often remaining "undecided" until the last minute of any race. Much of that indecision has to do with the fact that the state doesn't have its own media markets (it is covered by the very pricey New York City and Philadelphia markets) -- which ensures that the coverage of New Jersey politics is minimal at best.
Regardless of the reasons, the truth about New Jersey politics is that when these undecided voters do hop off the fence, large majorities of them land on the Democratic side. That reality means that if a race goes into election day with the two candidates tied and an undecided number between five and 10 percent, the Democrat is almost certain to win.
And, finally, Christie remains something of an undefined commodity right now.
Republicans cast him as a crusading reformer -- the perfect foil for Corzine. "Chris Christie fits the mold of GOP candidates in New Jersey who have won statewide office in the past," said Brian Jones, a Republican consultant and New Jersey native. "He's optimistic, not overly ideological, with a real focus on results and getting the job done."
Democrats insist that once Christie gets into the hurly-burly (awesome word) of a campaign, he will lose the sterling image that he currently carries with voters and will have to answer for his ties to former president George W. Bush; Christie raised money for Bush and was appointed U.S. Attorney by the former president.
"Let's wait and see where he is once he actually puts forth a policy proposal," said Democratic Governors Association political director Ray Glendening. "Jon Corzine has spent his first 3 years in office trying to put New Jersey's finances on track while Chris Christie has spent them preparing to run for Governor."
Could Corzine be headed for his first ever electoral defeat? Possible but not probable -- as of today. What's for sure is that he is in for a very serious race that will test his political acumen -- and, very likely, his wallet.
February 4, 2009; 3:27 PM ET
Categories: Democratic Party , Governors , Republican Party
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