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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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.