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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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.