Voter dyspepsia over taxes, favorable polls and a sagging state economy are giving New Jersey’s outnumbered Republicans real hope that they can oust Democratic incumbent Gov. Jon Corzine this fall.
With Republicans also putting up a strong fight in Virginia — the only other state with statewide races this year — party leaders are hoping twin wins can establish the impression that the party is on the comeback trail heading into the 2010 midterm elections.
With former U.S. Attorney Christopher J. “Chris” Christie now the official nominee, Republicans are even worried about setting expectations too high and inviting lethargy on the part of anti-Corzine voters in November.
“There is a very good chance, probably somewhat better than 50-50, that Christie will win this race,” said David Norcross, a Republican National Committee member from New Jersey.
A win would be particularly sweet as Republicans are a declining species in the Garden State, which has been reliably blue in presidential elections since 1992. Democrats outnumber Republicans by 1.75 million to 1.03 million, although 2.41 million state voters have not registered with either party.
The good news for Republicans is that the 46-year-old Mr. Christie has a 24 percentage point lead among independents, as well as a 50 percent to 40 percent lead overall over Mr. Corzine in the latest Quinnipiac University poll. What’s more, popular unhappiness over property taxes and job losses have broken through a media market too often dominated by outlets based in New York City and Philadelphia.
State voters “don’t need sophistication or a lot of news or news analysis to conclude that it is time to throw the ‘ins’ out,” Mr. Norcross said.
On the deep-pocketed other hand, the 62-year-old Mr. Corzine, a former chairman of the Wall Street brokerage power Goldman Sachs, has the personal wherewithal to dominate the ad wars and vastly outspend his rival. He plowed more than $40 million into his campaign to win his first term in 2005, after plunking down $65 million of his personal fortune to win a Senate seat in 2000 in his first try for public office.
Because Mr. Christie has accepted state matching funds, his campaign war chest will be limited to spending a little more than $15 million overall. With just Virginia and New Jersey voting this year, the national Democratic and Republican parties — not to mention private groups and political action committees — are expected to spend freely to tip the race.
Given Mr. Corzine’s unpopularity, the critical question may be how united Mr. Christie’s party will be following his primary win over conservative rival Steve Lonegan, former mayor of the New Jersey town of Bogota. Mr. Lonegan did better than expected in the primary and offered only a qualified endorsement of his rival.
Mr. Lonegan said Mr. Christie “has openly embraced conservatism, and if he continues on that path, all of us should work hard for his election.”
In a bid to mend fences, Mr. Christie has asked Assemblyman Jay Webber, considered a strong Reagan conservative acceptable to Lonegan backers, to serve as state Republican Party chairman.
“No Republican can win statewide without the support of Steve Lonegan primary voters,” said New Jersey political analyst Alan Steinberg.
Added former New Jersey Republican Party Chairman Tom Wilson, “Christie will need 90 percent of the Republican vote, including a substantial chunk of Lonegan voters.”
Even Democrats agree the Republicans must present a unified front to have any chance in the state.
“Christie definitely cannot win without Lonegan supporters,” New Jersey Democratic Party Executive Director Rob Angelo told The Washington Times.
Even then, contends Mr. Angelo, Mr. Corzine holds the edge in a liberal-leaning state. If Mr. Christie tries to move too far to the center, he risks losing Lonegan backers.
“New Jersey voters have made clear in election after election that they vote on issues, no personalities. And Chris Christie’s positions, vague as they are, don’t line up with New Jerseyans’ priorities,” he said.
The Democrats also hope to tarnish the luster on Mr. Christie’s crime-fighting image, including a record of some 130 political corruption cases in which the U.S. attorney never lost a case. Democratic Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. of Long Branch has already hammered the Republican nominee for dispensing no-bid contracts to friends while a U.S. attorney.
Still, Mr. Corzine is bearing the brunt of voter unhappiness over taxes and the economy. New Jersey’s jobless rate is 8.4 percent, still below the national average, but with eight of the state’s top 10 job-producing industries reporting declines in April.
All polls show that taxes — particularly property taxes — are by far the top-ranking object of ire among the state’s voters. In 2007, the median property-tax bill paid in New Jersey was $6,082 - the highest in the nation - with New Hampshire a distant second at $4,390.
“The tipping point has been reached on taxes, and people and business are leaving the state in droves.” Mr. Norcross says. “Is this Corzine’s fault? Only partially.”
Nonetheless, the governor has been unable to do anything about it because, Mr. Norcross argues, “he is politically inept, and the Democratic-dominated Legislature has ignored any attempt to seriously address the problems.”
“Thus, I think the explosion cometh and, with it, increased GOP numbers in the Legislature as well,” Mr. Norcross said. “Change has been historically abrupt in New Jersey.”