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New Jersey Governor's Race Preview

New Jersey Governor's Race Preview

By Sean Trende - June 1, 2009

There’s a statewide race in New Jersey, and Republicans are ecstatic about their chances of winning. The Democratic incumbent is unpopular and the Republicans have a seemingly attractive challenger. Polls show the incumbent trailing or barely ahead of a number of challengers with varying degrees of public recognition. In short, things look good for New Jersey Republicans.

The casual political observer will read this and think “you're talking about Jon Corzine, right?" The careful observer of New Jersey politics, however, is wondering which election is being discussed. After all, this is the pattern in New Jersey elections. Polling as late as September of 2008 showed John McCain within striking distance of Barack Obama. In 2006, polls showed Tom Kean, Jr., scion of a New Jersey political dynasty, consistently leading ethically challenged Democrat Robert Menendez. In 2005, polls showed Republican Doug Forrester competitive with soon-to-be Governor John Corzine, who had barely won his own Senate seat in 2000. In 2004, polls showed George Bush within the error margin of John Kerry.

Republicans fell short in all of these efforts, despite their strong initial positioning. In fact, Republicans have only won two statewide victories in New Jersey in the last twenty years. Put simply, New Jersey always seems to play Lucy to the GOP’s Charlie Brown. While this years’ hand is one of the better ones that Republicans have been dealt in the state in quite some time, there are ample reasons for Republicans to be concerned that, once again, the football will be pulled away at the last minute.

The Political Background

New Jersey is a fundamentally different state than Virginia (which we previewed here). Virginia is divided up into three roughly co-equal sections: the northern Virginia megapolis, the Richmond/Hampton Roads medium cities, and rural/small city Virginia. In New Jersey, an astounding ninety percent of the population lives in either the New York or Philadelphia metropolitan areas. With the New Jersey electorate, in other words, we are dealing with a highly urban and suburban demographic.

It was not always that way. After the Civil War, New Jersey had been a swing state, perhaps even leaning a bit toward the Democrats. But it was hard hit by the Panic of 1893 and was repelled by the William Jennings Bryan candidacy. In 1892, Democrats controlled both statehouses with 2-1 margins. By 1896, Republicans held an 18-3 edge in the state Senate and a 56-4 lead in the state Assembly. Even with annual elections of the legislature (discontinued only in 1949) and catastrophes such as the Great Depression, Democrats were only able to take control of the legislature once, briefly during the Progressive/Republican schism of the Taft Administration.

But New Jersey's demographics were changing, and its present political geography was taking shape. With the opening of the Hudson River tubes and, later, the Holland and Lincoln tunnels, immigrants began pouring out of their Manhattan tenements and into Northern New Jersey. In 1928, Hudson County gave Herbert Hoover three times as many votes as it had given William McKinley in 1896, a modest increase when one considers that women were granted the right to vote in the interim. In 1932, Hudson County gave FDR seven times the vote it had given William Jennings Bryan in 1896, and provided FDR with the votes he needed to carry the state. Powerful bosses like Frank Hague squeezed out any incipient Republicanism, and inner suburban counties like Hudson in the north and Camden in the south gave Democrats a solid base of operation.

The Republicans still held the balance of power in the state – FDR’s victories were narrow – but even that changed in the 1960s and 70s. No matter how you measure it – median household income, personal per capita income, number of locales with income above the national average, New Jersey is one of the wealthiest two or three states in the union. Like wealthy voters in places such as Marin County, California or the Upper East Side of New York, these voters began trending away from Republicans. With the weakening of GOP strongholds in Bergen and Union counties, the state began to lean toward the Democrats. This transformation was finalized with the advent of the New Democrats under President Clinton, when the state finally began voting Democratic for President. While the GOP still has a base in the counties in the northwest and southeast portions of the state, these have small populations compared with the Democrats’ counties.

At the same time, New Jersey’s restive conservatives were engaging in something of a preview of the Club for Growth’s strategy against the party’s moderates. In 1973, Charles Sandman successfully challenged moderate Republican governor William Cahill; Sandman went on to lose by better than 2-1 in the general election. In 1978, anti-tax activist Jeffrey Bell defeated liberal Republican (his ADA scores were typically in the 90s) Clifford Case; Bell lost by double digits to Bill Bradley. Since then, it has not mattered much whether the GOP nominated moderates or conservatives. Moderates like Tom Kean and Christie Todd Whitman have occasionally managed to pull together narrow victories, but others, like Dick Zimmer, have lost handily. Conservatives such as Bret Schundler have likewise gone down to defeat.

The Candidates

Republicans

The Republicans have a spirited primary. The front-runner is United States Attorney Christopher Christie. To understand Christie’s appeal, we need a bit of further background on the state. In New Jersey, the Governor is historically the only statewide elected official, although the state will elect a Lieutenant Governor for the first time this year. This leaves the Governor with exceedingly broad powers of appointment. In addition to statewide officials, he appoints the county prosecutors. Since the Governors frequently owe fealty to the county bosses (because it is hard to make news in a state dominated by New York and Philadelphia media outlets), and since there are over 300 cities, villages, towns, and boroughs in the state for the county prosecutors to watch over, the potential for corruption is massive.

So it is significant that Christie had an exceedingly successful career as United States Attorney, where he convicted well over 100 public officials. In a state that in many ways expect corrupt politicians, Christie’s “good government” reputation is an asset. Although he is nominally aligned with the moderate wing of the state party, he does consider himself pro-life. He has, to date, been a good fundraiser, and is known as a good stump speaker.

Christie faces a primary challenge from Former Mayor of Bogota (rhymes with Abe “Vigoda”) Steve Lonegan. Bogota is a small borough in Bergen County, near Teaneck. Lonegan is firmly aligned with the conservative activist wing of the party. Lonegan is legally blind, though he does not advertise that fact. He cites his ability to win in Democratic-leaning Bogota as evidence of his statewide appeal.

Democrats

Incumbent Governor Jon Corzine has never been beloved in New Jersey. Corzine had amassed a small fortune as a Goldman Sachs banker when he was recruited to run for Senate in 2000. Corzine spent furiously in the primary, defeating former Governor Jim Florio, and again in the general election, where he defeated Republican Bob Franks. But for all his spending, he only defeated Franks by three points.

Toward the end of his term, Corzine set his sights on the Governor’s office, which was being vacated by Governor Jim McGreevey, who stepped down after a sex/corruption scandal. After interim Governor Richard Codey decided not to run for Governor, Corzine jumped in. He spent $38 million in the general election alone, and this time defeated 2002 Senate candidate Doug Forrester by ten points.

But Corzine’s gubernatorial term has been a rough one. He faced a scandal early on when news broke that Corzine had engineered a financial settlement after his breakup with his former girlfriend, and president of Communications Workers of America Local 1034, Carla Katz. He was then faced with a government shutdown as a result of an impasse with the Democratic-controlled state house, when it refused to enact his proposed sales tax increase. He saw his plan to draw on future earnings from the New Jersey Turnpike go down in flames. Perhaps most famously, he was critically injured in an SUV wreck where he was not wearing his seat belt. All these things have taken their toll on Corzine, who enters the general election with low approval numbers, and trailing in the polls.

How It Plays Out

New Jersey is a state without any major media outlets. New Jersey voters watch New York or Philadelphia television, they listen to New York or Philadelphia radio stations, and they read the New York Times. This makes it difficult for a candidate to get “free media” by making a splash in the news. Unless, of course, a candidate does something dramatic. The flip side of this is that a candidate has to purchase advertisements in two of the most expensive media markets in the country. In short, to win, a candidate has to be exceptionally well-funded.

In the primary, this works to Lonegan’s detriment. Lonegan has raised $500,000 to Christie’s $3,000,000. Lonegan is using this to buy radio time, while Christie is spending on both radio and television. In addition, Democratic groups are hitting Christie for alleged ethical violations, seeking to throw the election to Lonegan. Christie has the endorsement of former Governor Kean, Lonegan has the endorsements of Ron Paul and Joe the Plumber.

The polling has generally shown Christie well ahead, but it will likely be a low-turnout primary next Tuesday (the primary is June 2). It will also disproportionately be dominated by conservative activists, who may lean toward Lonegan. Based on polling and the notion that Christie’s money will enable him to get out the vote he needs to get out, the primary likely leans toward Christie.

Regardless of his opponent, Corzine begins his election in a very precarious position. The polling done in April and May shows him with an approval rating hovering around forty percent. He has not led Christie in polling since January, and is tied against Lonegan. Against Christie, he struggles to break 40%, and has trailed by as many as fifteen points. Few incumbents survive such a position.

In addition, events are unlikely to be kind to Corzine. As the Great Recession marches on, Governors are forced to contend with an increasing demand for services, matched by falling revenues. In addition, the rise in unemployment will make voters restive, and unfavorably disposed toward their leadership.

But, New Jersey Democrats will respond, they’ve been here before. Republicans always poll well in early polling, then fall short at the finish line. Perhaps the most salient example is Tom Kean, Jr., in 2006. Kean ran even with Senator Menendez throughout 2006, then took the lead in the summer. But Menendez stormed back in October, and won by nine points.

The warning sign for Kean was his inability to rise above 50%, even against a weak opponent. Kean hit a ceiling of about 45% in his polling; in the end this is what he received. Likewise, Christie has been brushing against 50%, but has not hit it. If Corzine, like Menendez, can gather the bulk of the undecided voters, he could pull off an upset. Republicans will respond that Corzine is an established incumbent and therefore is unlikely to receive too many undecided voters, and that Corzine himself seems to have a ceiling of around 40%.

But Corzine has also yet to begin spending. Corzine has the ability to spend lavishly, and there is no reason to believe that he will not do so. While Christie has a good net approval rating, most voters are unfamiliar with him. Corzine will make certain that these voters know every negative thing there is to know about Christie. He will seek to neutralize the corruption issue by hammering Christie on his alleged “pay to play” politics. It is unclear whether or not Christie will have the funds to respond fully.

In the end, if the Republican nominee is Lonegan, this race will lean toward the Democrats. Only an utter collapse in Corzine’s approval or in the economy is likely to edge Lonegan over the finish line. With Christie, it is a somewhat different story. But given New Jersey’s electoral history and Corzine’s ability to spend freely and define his opponent, the edge still goes to Corzine, if only by a slight margin. If regular polling begins to show Christie over 50%, however, the analysis will change considerably in Christie’s favor.

Sean Trende is senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He is a co-author of the 2014 Almanac of American Politics and author of The Lost Majority. He can be reached at strende@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

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