‘The road back for the Republican party leads through New Jersey and Virginia,” said Bob McDonnell, the presumptive Republican nominee for governor of Virginia. As he addressed the Republican Governors Association’s $10-million fundraising gala Monday night, McDonnell hoped to focus GOP minds on the two big off-year races of 2009 — two governors’ races in which, he says, Republicans’ chances are far better than national political circumstances would suggest.
Virginia, sure; the state is widely seen as “purple.” But can Republicans seriously discuss any winning road that leads through New Jersey? All eyes are on Christopher Christie, who also spoke at the RGA event. The former U.S. attorney insists this is a winnable election.
“I’m a different kind of candidate,” Christie told National Review Online. He’ll have to be: The last time a Republican won a statewide race in New Jersey was in 1997, when Christine Todd Whitman was re-elected governor. Since then, New Jersey has been a brick wall against which Republicans keep hitting their heads, hoping each time for a different result.
In 2000, a moderate Republican, Rep. Bob Franks, narrowly failed to overcome Jon Corzine’s self-financed $68-million Senate campaign. In the 2001 race for governor, the party failed to unite around its conservative candidate, Jersey City mayor Bret Schundler, who was crushed. In 2002, Democrats seized victory from the jaws of defeat when their embattled incumbent senator, Robert Torricelli, quit in mid-campaign, to be replaced by former senator Frank Lautenberg. In 2004, the state went for Kerry in the presidential race. In 2005, outrage over the scandal that had led to the resignation of Gov. Jim McGreevey (D.) failed to deliver the governorship to the moderate Republican candidate, Douglas Forrester, and Corzine moved from the Senate into the governor’s mansion. In 2006, Republicans chose a moderate Senate candidate with a locally prominent name, Thomas Kean Jr., who flopped against the replacement Corzine had appointed. In 2008, Lautenberg easily beat former representative Dick Zimmer.
In each of these contests, except perhaps last year’s Senate race, there was a brief moment during which Republicans believed they could win. Will these beliefs amount to anything more where Christie is concerned? In some ways, he is already unlike the candidates that Republicans have fielded in the past ten years. He is an experienced and well-known prosecutor who obtained the convictions of more than 100 corrupt government officials — the most prominent being former Newark mayor Sharpe James, who is currently serving 27 months in prison. Also, unlike every other Republican to run statewide in the last decade, Christie begins his race leading the Democrat — incumbent Jon Corzine — by six points. “And that’s before we’ve even spent a nickel on our campaign,” he says.
If Christie is a different kind of candidate, so is Corzine a different kind of incumbent. As a wealthy man who funds his own races, he is probably immune from a serious primary challenge — but the latest poll gives him just 38 percent support and places his negative ratings at 49 percent. Just 9 percent of New Jersey voters believe he has made their state better. “He has a lot of money, but he also has a record to defend this time,” Christie says. “He’s going to need every nickel of that money to defend it.” Christie said he plans to avail himself of New Jersey’s public-financing system.
Christie points out repeatedly that New Jersey now has one of the nation’s worst business climates, and it has 13 of the 20 counties in the country with the highest property taxes. He could add that New Jersey is the third-most-indebted state (it recently passed Louisiana) and that some 90 percent of the net jobs it has added since 2000 have been government jobs. In 2007, even before the economic downturn, a poll found that among middle-income New Jerseyans (between $50,000 and $100,000 per year), 59 percent wanted to move out of the state.
“My question to you,” Christie told the RGA crowd with a smile, “is how much worse could I do?”
Corzine appeared Monday morning on C-Span to discuss the necessity of President Obama’s stimulus package, particularly insofar as it bails out state budgets. “It is clearly going to help our citizens maintain the quality education system we have here in New Jersey. . . . It also will allow us to help maintain our health-care system.” That’s one way to put it. Another way is that New Jersey is like the irresponsible homeowner who overbought and now hopes for government help to maintain his extravagant standard of living. Two years ago Corzine tried to add $500 million in debt for facilities to research embryonic stem cells, making wild claims about how the health benefits would save the state billions of dollars (there was essentially zero chance of recouping anything). New Jersey voters rejected the funding in a referendum.
Christie frames himself as a figure who can unite the conservative and moderate wings of the GOP and attract independent voters. One experienced Jersey political operative told me that Christie is “the best thing that conservatives can hope for in New Jersey. He’s not an overly partisan figure, he doesn’t wear his religion on his sleeve and freak out all of the moderates, but he’s good on the issues.”
Christie faces a primary challenge from Steve Lonegan, the conservative former mayor of Bogota. At first it looked likely that the abortion issue could make the contest competitive — Lonegan is a stronger pro-lifer than Christie – but last week, Rep. Chris Smith (R.) endorsed Christie, which may have neutralized that problem. Smith has long been considered the gold standard in the pro-life movement, and he has worked with Christie on half a dozen human-trafficking cases. (Smith’s office did not respond to NRO’s inquiries.) “I am pro-life,” Christie told National Review Online.
For now, right-to-life groups have withheld judgment on the race, but with Smith’s endorsement, Christie can focus his rhetoric on the fiscal and economic issues, where Corzine is particularly weak. Christie promises tax cuts, coupled with generous use of the line-item veto to bring about sharp cuts in government spending.
“Too often, governors in New Jersey — from both parties, Democrat and Republican — are afraid to make the tough decisions because they’re too worried about being re-elected,” Christie says. “What I’m saying to the voters is, just give me one term. If I’m voted out, I won’t mind, as long as I’ve made the tough decisions and put our state back on the right track.”
– David Freddoso is a National Review Online staff reporter and author of The Case Against Barack Obama.