Gov. Jon Corzine’s bid for a second term is in trouble over New Jersey’s battered economy, angry homeowners who face rising property taxes,
and polls showing Republicans beating him in November.
The former Wall Street financier who spent more than $50 million of his own money to capture the governorship has seen his disapproval scores rise to 54 percent, the highest ever measured for a New Jersey governor, according to a recent Quinnipiac University poll.
The growing dissatisfaction has opened up an opportunity for Republicans to win back a state that has been in Democratic hands since 2002 but is now considered a tossup by election analysts. Republicans were also leading in this fall’s only other governor’s race - in Virginia, where Democrats have held the Statehouse for the past eight years.
If Republicans succeed in recapturing both governorships, it would give their tarnished party brand a major boost as they prepare for the midterm elections in 2010 and the presidential election two years later.
Two Republicans are vying for their party’s nomination to take on Mr. Corzine: former U.S. Attorney Christopher Christie, the acknowledged front-runner, and former Bogota Mayor Steve Lonegan. A Quinnipiac survey of likely voters showed Mr. Christie leading by 23 points.
In general election matchups, the May 20 poll showed Mr. Christie leading Mr. Corzine 45 percent to 38 percent, and Mr. Lonegan, a conservative former small-town mayor, narrowly ahead of the governor by 42 percent to 40 percent.
“The [heavily Democratic] state’s bent helps Corzine, but even that may not be enough to save him. In a state where Republicans have fallen off the cliff, Christie has a serious shot of winning,” the Rothenberg Political Report, which tracks the elections, said last week.
Mr. Christie has made a reputation for himself as a corruption fighter in the state, winning the convictions of some 130 elected officials and employees, Democrats and Republicans alike.
Mr. Lonegan, who is widely seen as the more conservative of the two, is championing a flat tax that the Christie campaign says will raise taxes on 70 percent of the state’s residents.
Mr. Christie is calling for across-the-board tax cuts to boost the state’s economy and massive budget cuts. Former 2000 Republican presidential candidate Steve Forbes, a flat-tax champion, says the Christie tax cut plan is better and has endorsed him.
Mr. Corzine’s troubles largely stem from the recession that has hit his state hard, pushing unemployment to 8.4 percent and cutting tax revenues by nearly $3 billion. The shortfall has forced proposed budget cuts, including getting rid of the popular property tax rebates, except for the disabled and seniors.
That has angered homeowners and sparked Republican charges of fiscal mismangement against Mr. Corzine, who says that the collapse in tax revenues left him no other choice but to cancel the property tax rebates.
“It hurts [homeowners], but we don’t have the sources to be able to fund it,” he said last week. “We have to make tough choices. It’s not a choice that I like to make.”
But Republicans reject his blame-the-economy excuse, saying that he is ultimately responsible for the state’s fiscal mess.
“Corzine came in as the wizard of Wall Street, yet he has incredibly mismanaged the finances of this state. The state is going to get a $2 billion bridge loan just to get us through the fiscal year. He’s raising taxes, debt is going up, he refuses further spending cuts, and he’s eliminating property tax rebates,” said Michael DuHaime, chief campaign strategist for Mr. Christie.
“I think he’s going to be judged on his record and no amount of money that he puts into this race will hide that failed record,” Mr. DuHaime said in an interview.
The Republican Governors Association (RGA) has been running TV and radio ads in the past few weeks, saying: “New Jersey’s business climate ranks in the bottom five nationally” and reminding voters of Mr. Corzine’s pledge in his last campaign to enact “compromise property tax relief.”
“New Jersey has the highest property taxes in the nation. And Corzine just proposed eliminating property tax rebates,” the ads say - pointing out that he recently proposed a tax surcharge on the state’s businesses that would raise taxes by $1 billion.
But the Democratic Governors Association (DGA) has plowed more than $1 million into TV ads in recent weeks, too, charging that Mr. Christie as U.S. attorney awarded big, no-bid contracts to friends and former associates to monitor settlements in criminal cases.
His supporters say DGA ads are an attempt to smear his reputation as a crime fighter in the hopes of helping his opponent in the June 2 Republican primary - and to shift the focus away from the economic issues he is emphasizing in his campaign.
“This is also an attempt by the Democrats to distract the voter’s attention away from Corzine’s record. But the voters are smart enough to stack up Christie’s record as being impeccable with what Jon Corzine’s friends are attempting to do, which is to distort his record with a big money buy,” said Mike Schrimpf, the RGA’s chief spokesman.
Regardless of who wins the June 2 Republican primary, the general election is still five months away, by which time economists are forecasting that the economy will begin recovering - perhaps in time to help Mr. Corzine recover politically.
Further helping Mr. Corzine is his decision to forgo state campaign spending limits, using his personal fortune to bankroll a re-election bid that will likely dwarf what the Republicans will spend. Mr. Christie now has $3 million cash on hand and will have $12 million for the general election.
“The Democrats are spending a ton of money, but we feel good about where we are right now,” Mr. DuHaime said. “We’ll live under the state’s campaign finance restrictions.”
Mr. Schrimpf notes that “no Democratic governor has been re-elected in New Jersey since 1977.”