The Magazine

A GOP Comeback

Will it start with New Jersey's Chris Christie?

Mar 30, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 27 • By JENNIFER RUBIN
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The 2009 New Jersey gubernatorial race is an unlikely platform from which to launch Republicans' comeback. After all, New Jersey Republicans have come to resemble Charlie Brown and that elusive football. Each cycle hope springs eternal that this will be their time to connect with voters. But time and again, hope in the spring has turned into disappointment in November. In Senate races in 1996 and 2002 (the latter with the help of a controversial last-minute substitution for the embattled Robert Torricelli), Democrats held on. Republicans' optimism also proved to be misplaced in gubernatorial contests in 2001 and 2005.

Barack Obama won the state by a 57-42 percent margin. Democrats hold both U.S. Senate seats and eight of the thirteen congressional districts. They enjoy an advantage in party registration of approximately 600,000 voters. New Jersey is the country's most urban state at a time when Republicans are losing overwhelmingly in the cities. And, on top of all that, the incumbent governor is a multimillionaire who can self-finance in a state regarded as among the most expensive in which to campaign.

Yet, New Jersey Republicans believe that they have an opportunity to stage an upset and make a powerful statement that, given the right candidate and the right message, they can win in the Northeast. New Jersey Republican chairman Tom Wilson contends, "New Jersey is fundamentally a blueish state that goes red under the right circumstances." He believes there are ample reasons for Republicans to think these might be the right circumstances.

The biggest reason for Republican optimism is the incumbent governor, Jon Corzine. In a February Monmouth/Gannett poll only 34 percent of New Jersey voters approved of Corzine's job performance, and 72 percent believed the state is on the "wrong track." He's consistently garnered less than 40 percent of the vote in polls, a tell-tale sign of an at-risk incumbent. In two March surveys, he trailed the most likely Republican challenger 15 and 9 points, respectively.

Corzine came into office with high expectations that, as a former Goldman Sachs chief executive, he could turn around the state's image and fortunes. But his first term has been beset with troubles. There were the payments regarded as "hush money" to his ex-girlfriend and union president Carla Katz and her brother-in-law Rocco Riccio. Of the latter the Asbury Park Press wrote:

The whole episode stinks. Aside from Corzine's handling of the situation, which smacks of typical New Jersey politics--throw money at any and all problems to make them go away--there are too many unanswered questions about the Corzine-Katz-Riccio soap opera. Chief among them are the payout and a $15,000 gift Corzine gave Riccio in early 2007, the multimillion-dollar "settlement" Corzine gave Katz when their relationship ended and Corzine's overzealous efforts to block public disclosure of his e-mail exchanges with Katz during union negotiations.

Then came the near fatal car crash which occurred as Corzine, with no seatbelt, was speeding at over 90 miles per hour to a photo-op with Don Imus and members of the Rutgers women's basketball team. Corzine admitted that he had "set a very bad example." The New York Times observed in April 2007, "Underpinning the outpouring of sympathy and well wishes, there was palpable anger and resentment among residents here and across the state over what they see as a serious lapse in judgment."

New Jersey has been especially hard hit by the downturn in the financial sector and massive layoffs on Wall Street. The state has a $7 billion budget deficit. New Jersey regularly ranks at the bottom for business-friendliness. Politicians on both sides of the aisle bemoan the fact that Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell "comes across the river" to poach business for his lower tax state on a weekly basis.

Other issues that have angered suburban voters include Corzine's plan to end the state property rebate system (after promising to cut property taxes), his unpopular affordable housing law, which foists low cost units on rural and suburban townships, and the system of school funding--which suburban residents think has shortchanged their schools. A recently released state school report showed that more than 40 percent of middle school children (70 percent in some urban districts) are failing proficiency exams. And then there were ideas like leasing out the New Jersey Turnpike and Garden State Parkway, which one local official says "was so dead on arrival it should never have left his desk." And in a belated effort to shed his Wall Street image, Corzine has even proposed suing Lehman Brothers and its accountant for "misrepresentations" that resulted in the state purchasing $182 million in Lehman securities in 2008 and incurring more than $100 million in losses.

Corzine does not yet evoke the same level of anger that swept Democrat Jim Florio out of power in 1993, but as one Republican official put it, "He was the Wall Street executive who was going to make government work. But people don't think Corzine can move the ball from point A to point B."

Republicans outside the state are ready to pounce. Nick Ayers, executive director of the Republican Governors Association, says: "There is no amount of resources or voter registration Corzine can hide behind to protect himself from his record. The governor's reelection is predicated on his job performance. It is a referendum."

A county Republican official agrees: "Corzine will be trying to blame everything on the national and world economy. But that's really wrong. For the last eight years the Democrats--and they control the assembly and the senate too--spent like drunken sailors. They don't know what it means to rein in spending." He notes that their fiscal management had been so bad that they were using bonds to pay for ordinary operating expenses.

New Jersey Republicans, however, have learned that an ineffective Democratic incumbent is no guarantee of a Republican victory. They think they finally have a viable challenger: one who can both navigate the Republican primary and match up well in the general election.

Chris Christie doesn't look like a Republican savior. He hasn't held statewide office and has only one term as Morris County freeholder--the equivalent of a member of the local board of supervisors--and he lost his reelection bid. He looks less like a politician than a high school wrestling coach. Unlike previous "self-funded" Republican candidates, he also has no reservoir of personal wealth to help get the message out.

Yet, Christie's seven years as New Jersey's U.S. attorney have given him a statewide appeal. Appointed by George W. Bush, he put together an impressive track record of crime-busting and corruption-fighting with guilty pleas or convictions of more than 130 appointed or elected officials (including former Newark mayor Sharpe James)--which evinces comparisons to Rudy Giuliani. He had a high-profile prosecution of almost a dozen Republicans and a couple Democrats in Monmouth County, not to mention Jim Treffinger--the leading 2002 Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate before he was indicted. This has, largely, insulated Christie from complaints of playing politics with his office.

While Christie recently announced that he is pro-life (explaining that the birth of his children made a difference in his thinking) and supports banning partial-birth abortions and requiring parental notification and a 24-hour waiting period, social issues are not his focus. Instead he is going after Corzine's fiscal record and running as a reformer--on the budget, corruption, urban blight, and education.

Christie, 46, grew up in Newark, which, he explains, now has "only 50 percent of the population that was there when I was born." His years as an attorney have honed his verbal skills and talent for making a fact-based case. He runs through his arguments (why Corzine is vulnerable, what campaign money can buy you--and can't--and what's wrong with the state's economy), enumerating each and repeating his reasons in a tight summary at the end. He rarely fumbles his lines and, unlike other inexperienced politicians, there is nary a "you know" or "uh" in his answers.

Christie exudes a sense of humor and buoyancy, mixing in stories about his Bruce Springsteen fandom with feisty jabs at his opponent. It's a sharp contrast with Corzine, who rarely glad-hands and has been criticized as cold and remote. Christie hasn't lost the excitement of a political newcomer--expressing a gee-whiz amazement that volunteers would pack his campaign office on Valentine's Day to make calls on his behalf.

His argument for his candidacy is simple. "The governor has been a serious disappointment to people in the state," he contends. "Three years ago he said he was the financial wizard of Wall Street. Now we're in worse shape than we were three years ago--and not just because of the national economy." At the top of his indictment is the state's "unsustainable" spending. "We are creating an atmosphere where state spending is the tail wagging the dog." To support that ever-burgeoning government, Christie argues, the Democrats have had to maintain an exorbitant level of taxation (9 percent state income tax) plus corporate taxes and other business fees and licensing requirements, which discourage employers from locating in the state. He vows, "I will recruit more business."

Christie is aware that if he is to win he will have to appeal in urban and suburban areas with a problem-solving message. He ticks off his plans for urban redevelopment--"Improve public safety, grow jobs, improve education." He recently rolled out a fiscal plan to cut spending, contain lucrative state labor obligations, create an elected state auditor position, and make use of the line-item and "conditional" vetoes.

Christie's biggest challenge may be money. Jennifer Duffy of the Cook Political Report observes that in New Jersey, "If you are carpet bombing the New York and Philadelphia TV markets, you can overwhelm your opponents." New Jersey has a public financing system for both primaries and general elections that provides two dollars for every one a candidate raises. But Corzine spent more than $60 million of his own funds in his first race and has tens of millions more at his disposal. Christie maintains a brave face. "It is a reality Jon Corzine will outspend me," but "We'll have money to get our message out. The governor has a record he has to run on and defend. .  .  . He'll need every nickel he has to defend his record."

And Corzine's resources have a downside. As a northern New Jersey Republican official notes, "People are wise to the fact he comes out of the financial world. The financial world has pretty much destroyed our economic system, the world system." He says that the "wheeling and dealing" at Goldman Sachs that once provided Corzine with the air of financial prowess may prove a liability.

It is not hard to anticipate how the race will pan out. Larry J. Sabato explains, "The 2009 contest will be mainly a referendum on Corzine, one way or the other. Corzine will try to nationalize it and link Christie to an unpopular national GOP." In the end, it will come down to whether voters think Corzine deserves a second term or if Christie offers voters a better alternative and credible plan for repairing the state's dismal political and economic reputation.

But before Christie gets to Corzine he has to win the June primary, where he will face Steve Lonegan, the mayor of Bogota (population: 10,000), Morris County assemblyman Rick Merkt, and Franklin Township mayor Brian Levine. With three months to go before the June primary Christie is the clear frontrunner (leading his closest challenger by more than 20 points in recent polls) and the favorite of most national Republicans and a broad array of in-state politicians ranging from conservative representative Chris Smith to moderate ex-governor Tom Kean. Rudy Giuliani endorsed him--in front of Corzine's Hoboken home, in an act of political one-upmanship. Other national Republicans soon may follow suit. The Republican Governors Association remains "respectful" of the primary, says Ayers, but it offered Christie a platform at their gala Washington, D.C., dinner in February.

Winning the primary in New Jersey is to a large degree an exercise in retail politics. A candidate needs to line up the leadership and local activists of New Jersey's 21 county party organizations between now and April. Eighteen of these "award the line"--a preferential ballot placement atop the approved slate of candidates that is key to winning the primary vote. The "line" can be obtained in either an open party convention or simply at the whim of the county party chairman.

The first batch of these county endorsements, including Camden, Cape May, Union, Burlington, Passaic, and Monmouth counties, has gone to Christie, in large part because county chairmen and party regulars view him as the most viable candidate in November. His image as a no-nonsense prosecutor also resonates with local political leaders, says state chairman Wilson.

Bergen County chairman Robert Yudin and his county organization are also endorsing Christie. He explains his preference, "This is New Jersey. This is a Blue state. We need someone of Chris Christie's caliber and broad appeal to win in New Jersey. This isn't Texas." He argues that no Republican can win the state without Bergen and that Christie is best suited because his record on corruption stands to be highlighted when a group of politicians he indicted comes up for trial this year.

Joe Oxley, who heads the Monmouth Republicans, thinks Christie's combination of a "very, very successful record on public corruption" and solid retail political skills--"He has the ability to captivate a room"--gives the Republicans their best shot to knock out Corzine.

Of Christie's opponents, Lonegan is the best known and funded. In conversation, he lives up to his reputation as conservative firebrand, dubbing Corzine "the most left-wing socialist governor" in the state's history. Nor does he have much patience with New Jersey Republicans, branding the primary as a contest "between Trenton insiders and conservatives." Lonegan is attempting to run to the right of Christie, putting social issues front and center and turning up the rhetoric to appeal to the conservative base. His plans include a flat tax and a striking approach to urban reform. "The long term plan for the cities is to dismantle them," he says. He contends that people really want to live in "towns and villages." Rather than spending money on the cities, he thinks New Jersey should be "driving economic growth and jobs and giving people the opportunity to move out." So far it hasn't been a winning formula, in part because Christie has declared his pro-life views but also because he is proposing a conservative agenda on the issue that matters most to voters, the economy.

The results this November in both the New Jersey and Virginia gubernatorial races will be pored over by the pundits and political insiders. Christie contends his victory would "send a message across the country" that a "reform-minded" Republican can win in blue states. And for those straining to see the beginnings of a conservative revival wins in New Jersey and Virginia would rekindle memories of 1993 when victories by Christie Todd Whitman and George Allen preceded the Republicans' stunning recapture of Congress the following year. While that may be beyond even the most optimistic Republican dreams, knocking out a Democratic governor in New Jersey would be proof that the Republican party still has a pulse. And if Christie is the victor, a previously unknown prosecutor will be a knight in shining armor for a party badly in need of rescue.

Jennifer Rubin is the Washington editor for Pajamas Media and blogs at Commentary magazine's Contentions website.