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NJ-Gov: Can Republicans (Finally) Win?

Is Gov. Jon Corzine vulnerable this fall? AP Photo/Mel Evans

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.

By Chris Cillizza  |  February 4, 2009; 3:27 PM ET
Categories:  Democratic Party , Governors , Republican Party  
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mark its hard to believe you are linking the daily texan as a serious publication espceially when they write such drivel as "My opinion has always been that Texas is a more independent state,” Dunnam said. “My prediction is Texas will continue to be an independent state, and 20 percent of the electorate will swing both ways.” Who is he kidding? We are as R as Alabama and Oklahoma.
While White is very poular in Houston, its doubtful that those same Houston Rs that love him as mayor will say the same when they see his D label on the Senate ballot, since they are used to our nonpartisan local elections that got him elected by large margins as mayor. And Sharp blew a 10 point lead in the last week in his run against Perry. After losing control of the state legislature by 21 votes, I totally agree that D's hopes in Texas are fools gold.

Posted by: leichtman | February 5, 2009 5:37 PM | Report abuse

NJ is more like the sirens along the rocks. They sing and it sounds sooooo good but the republicans just end up sinking good money in a losing state.

Posted by: PLuv | February 5, 2009 1:45 PM | Report abuse

Any brave Post analyst willing to connect the dots between the progressive degradation of NJ politics, symbolized by hack or corrupt politicians (McGreevey, Menendez, Lautenberg, Corzine), the one-party domination of the state (I'll be charitable and not name the party), and New Jersey's remorseless economic and population decline? Correlation is not causation, but it's good enough for me. Bruce Springsteen might consider his own state for his next socially-conscious album, but maybe not; hint - this curious correlation occurs elsewhere in the country - California, Illinois, Michigan . . . living on the inheritence of earlier generations, while the entrepreneurial and ambitious seek out friendlier environments . . . old story . . .

Posted by: MarkR1 | February 5, 2009 10:56 AM | Report abuse

It is true Republicans can win NJ. Only they can't do it by being so similar to their opponents. This was why Forrester (twice), Junior Kean, and Zimmer lost their contests. If the choice is between a genuine liberal and an imitation liberal, the voters will usually pick the genuine article.

Tom Wilson and the NJ GOP establishment have had a dismal track record of backing losers. They should stay out of the primaries and marshall their resouces for the main fight in November. During their tenure, the number of elected Republicans in NJ has continuously gone down.

Sadly, Christie is like a lap dancer. How so you might ask? Because he is nothing more than a tease. He will string you along, get you all excited, and in the end there is no happy ending.

He is copying the techniques of other failed GOP candidates from the past. He is using the bus routine a la Bob Schroeder's 2005 Governor attempt and the diner method used to much success (not) by Dick Zimmer last year. The only “winner” he seems to be emulating is Obama. He makes sure nobody finds out what he is really all about by talking in broad platitudes and avoiding specifics on any issue.

The only person in this race that is talking specifics is Steve Lonegan. Besides actually having the best background and offering a plan, he has raised the most money by far of any GOP candidate and already has radio ads on the air. Also, Mayor Lonegan offers a clear contrast to Corzine. Voters will have no problem understanding where the differences exist.

Christie has stated that he loved being US Attorney in NJ. With Obama's victory, he realized that he would probably get replaced. No matter what the people around him say, he is not cut out to be Governor. The best job for him would be Attorney General of NJ where he could continue to pursue all the things he was so passionate about while US Attorney.

Posted by: NJ_Committeeman | February 5, 2009 10:43 AM | Report abuse

What could Christie possibly do better than Corzine to improve New Jersey's financial woes? The state's in a deep hole (like most states). If you think Corzine's "ineffective," it's possible that things could be even worse if he weren't the governor - or if Christie were to get in.

Posted by: dognabbit | February 5, 2009 9:45 AM | Report abuse

The NJ governorship has been won by the party out of office in DC five times in a row. Given Corzine's failings, I wouldn't bet against that record growing to six.

Posted by: qlangley | February 5, 2009 7:34 AM | Report abuse

Tou would be a fool to vote republican at this point and time.

Posted by: rkz1964 | February 5, 2009 12:04 AM | Report abuse

1. Christie gave lucrative contracts to oversee cases to Republican law firms (including John Ashcroft's) without bidding.
2. He allowed Kean, Jr to base his whole campaign on a non-existent invesitigation of Menedez.
3. He received good marks from the Gonzo Justice Department for investigating Dems and leaving Repubs alone.

Not a chance.

Posted by: lensch | February 4, 2009 10:19 PM | Report abuse

A moderate Republican has some chance at the governor's mansion, though each time one has one, it took an extremely close race and Jim Florio as the opponent. However, in the Senate races, it's hopeless. Nominate a moderate, the conservatives sit on their rear ends. Nominate a conservative, the moderates sit this one out. It explains why no Republican has won a Senate race in New Jersey since 1972. No Senate race there in 2010, by the way.

Posted by: ggreenbaum | February 4, 2009 8:42 PM | Report abuse

I SERIOUSLY DOUBT IT!!!THEY HAVE NO CHANCE PEROID!!! And based on how they keep going against our popular president OBAMA and the much NEEDED STIMULUS package they can forget it. Justice Roberts also screwed up their chances when he diliberatly messed up President Obamas sweering in.

Posted by: mattadamsdietmanager1014 | February 4, 2009 8:04 PM | Report abuse

"Jesus Christ couldn't win in New Jersey."

Jesus Christ wouldn't win an election anywhere in the States because he is "anti-military" and would immediately propose slashing the "defense" budget.

You yourself, armpeg, would doubtless tell him to F-off and go get a haircut or drink a latte or something.

Posted by: Bud0 | February 4, 2009 6:49 PM | Report abuse

re. "Can Republicans win the governors race in New Jersey"
No way. New Jersey is a Democrap Party fiefdom with organized crime having a lot to say within that parties agenda. Anyone straying from the Democrap plantation will be visited by Tony Soprano--types, a la Jimmy Hoffa. Jesus Christ couldn't win in New Jersey.

Posted by: armpeg | February 4, 2009 5:59 PM | Report abuse

The economic crisis over the next two years will, I suspect, be a rough time for the popularity of state governors; states can't run deficits, and when things get pinched, they're going to have to make some calls about programs that will hurt people.

At the same time, the GOP track record in New Jersey is so abysmal (they haven't won a decisive statewide victory since 1985; Whitman, their last big success, managed 1% margins both times) that I'll believe it when I see it.

Posted by: SeanC1 | February 4, 2009 5:45 PM | Report abuse

"What did Rush say??

Can he send in Joe the Economic Analyst to figure this out for the GOP?? Scary......"

No send in Joe the Eastern Elitist

Posted by: leapin | February 4, 2009 5:44 PM | Report abuse

newbeeboy writes
"Am I crazy?"

Either that or new.

While the feds certainly impose plenty of regulation on the states and this year will likely send dollars to states, the reality is that large organizations need an executive that runs the show. If we eliminate governors, who's in charge? Not the congressional delegations, I hope.

Posted by: bsimon1 | February 4, 2009 5:02 PM | Report abuse

The Borgen Project has some good info on the cost of addressing global poverty.

$30 billion: Annual shortfall to end world hunger.
$550 billion: U.S. Defense budget

Posted by: atsegga | February 4, 2009 5:02 PM | Report abuse

Chris, please note this poll story.

Ds in Tx have been running around thinking they can win something ever since the State House elections left a 76-74 R-D split which led to the ouster of Craddick, the conservative R Speaker, and his replacement by a moderate R, acceptable to Ds.

Maybe Sharp or White have a chance of winning, according to this polling.

Its probably like the reverse of NJ - Fool's Gold for Ds.

Posted by: mark_in_austin | February 4, 2009 4:46 PM | Report abuse

Republicans have won the Governor's office four times since 1981.

1981- Tom Kean Sr wins by less than 2,000 votes.

1985- Kean wins reelection by a 70%-30% blowout.

1993 - Christine Whitman defeats the incumbent by 1% (26,000 votes)

1997, Whitman wins re-election by 1% (25,000 votes)

The margins are very close in 3 of 4 races, won by Republicans, so there is no margin of error, especially since Obama's candidacy helped register additional black voters.

Posted by: Digital_Voter | February 4, 2009 4:39 PM | Report abuse

What did Rush say??

Can he send in Joe the Economic Analyst to figure this out for the GOP?? Scary......

Posted by: rbaldwin2 | February 4, 2009 4:32 PM | Report abuse

newbeeboy: Not crazy, just much exaggerating.

Posted by: newageblues | February 4, 2009 4:26 PM | Report abuse

I've said before, if the Feds keep bailing out the States and telling them what the must do legally, why do we need State Governors? Why do we need duplication of duty? Let's face it, we have about 52 geographic partitions that mean almost nothing!! Am I crazy?

Posted by: newbeeboy | February 4, 2009 4:16 PM | Report abuse

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