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.