Monday, July 20, 2009

New Jersey Could Go Red in '09

The Republican Party’s path to relevancy begins in New Jersey’s and Virginia’s gubernatorial and legislative elections this year. As noted in an earlier post, the best man for the job of helming the national GOP effort in these contests is Gov. Haley Barbour (R-MS) as chairman of the Republican Governors Association. Both states deserve a look, and this post will inspect Republican chances in New Jersey in the gubernatorial and Assembly elections in the fall.

The Republican candidate for governor in New Jersey is Chris Christie. His opponent is Democratic incumbent Gov. John Corzine. Christie is in play because Corzine’s record as governor is dismal. However, Christie has some faults, thin-skin among them that Corzine must manipulate if he is to win. As it stands today, Christie is the likely winner on Election Day.

Corzine is not beloved by NJ voters by a long shot. His self-stated major achievement is death penalty reform, not ideal in times of economic anxiety. Further, Corzine’s Wall Street guru status is more harmful than helpful in these days of Wall Street demonization amid the financial crisis. Corzine’s favorable to unfavorable ratio is roughly 1:1.5 – meaning more likely voters dislike him than like him. More ominous for Corzine is that polling shows he is losing Unaffiliated (registered voters not affiliated with any political party) voters by 23 percent – devastating in a state where Unaffiliated voters make up 47 percent of the electorate (33% of voters are Democrats and 20% are Republicans in NJ).

With no sturdy record to rely upon, it appears Corzine has few viable options to craft a winning strategy. Among those options are tying himself closely to President Obama’s legislative successes and destroying Christie by defining him as the typical pay-to-play, corrupt politician. The idea that Pres. Obama’s personal popularity in the state can transfer to Corzine is misguided. Pres. Obama can make as many trips to NJ as Corzine requests, but without legislative success for the White House and a brightening of the economy in NJ, one man’s popularity will not revive Corzine’s sinking prospects. Corzine’s best option is to bludgeon Christie to incite an emotional response that reveals any character flaws.

Corzine is vulnerable on core issues such as budget, the economy, and taxes. These have been NJ Republican bread and butter issues in the past and Corzine’s record could return a Republican to Drumthwacket (the governor’s mansion).

Corzine’s biggest asset is his assets, with the assumption that he will spend $30 million of his own wealth to win this contest. Even in a media market as expensive as New York City and Pennsylvania, this is a lot of money that can be used to effectively define an opponent. Corzine’s campaign will have to be careful how it goes about defining Christie as his unfavorable rating is already very high and risks getting worse by attacking Christie without much to say about Corzine’s positive attributes as governor.

As to Christie, he has run an admirable campaign, but is not over the finish line yet. Christie is notoriously thin-skinned. On the other hand he has a very strong record of prosecuting pay-to-play, corrupt politicians; Republicans and Democrats alike (130 government officials with no acquittals). There are three areas where Christie is vulnerable to Corzine attacks. They are:

1) The deferred prosecution of his brother in a securities fraud case (Christie’s brother Todd is the Christie campaign’s finance chairman), meaning Corzine has to convince voters of the allegation Christie pulled strings to save his brother’s hide;

2) Awarding no bid contracts to consulting and law firms (his former boss, US Attorney John Ashcroft among them) to monitor companies settling fraud cases and then raising funds for his campaign from those same firms; and

3) Appearing to lie when asked if attorney John Inglesino raised money for Christie after Christie announced he would not raise gubernatorial campaign funds from any entity awarded no bid contracts while he was a U.S. Attorney (Inglesino worked at the law firm Stern & Kilcullen that was picked by then U.S. Attorney Christie to settle fraud claims at NJ’s medical school).

The last of these three is the most potent because Christie was caught on tape denying Inglesino raised funds for his campaign despite evidence to the contrary that Inglesino hosted a fundraiser and solicited donations. Corzine’s $30 million could put a dent in Christie’s hopes of victory by driving a message that defines Christie as a typical pay-to-play, corrupt politician. Christie will combat this with his unapproachable record as a corruption-busting U.S. Attorney and the fact that the monitoring contracts went to qualified firms to oversee corporate settlements, not taxpayer funds.

The message that is clearly not working for Corzine is trying to tie George W. Bush to Christie. Most noteworthy is that Christie was on the list of U.S. attorneys to be replaced by the Bush Department of Justice, making any reference to George W. Bush in this campaign wishful and stubborn thinking by Democrats that Bush is somehow a salient campaign theme moving forward.

There are enough Christie molehills for Corzine to construct a mountain. However, it will be up to Christie to make a mistake, which is possible given his thin-skin, to give Corzine the victory.

Christie is not exactly the brand of Republicanism that is required for the GOP to become relevant, but he is neither a right wing ideologue. Abiding by the tenet that the GOP needs to practice addition and not subtraction, Christie is acceptable. Christie’s emphasis on fiscal restraint, treating sustainable energy as an industry, urban revitalization and tax reform along with his choice of a moderate, pro-choice running mate (Kim Guadagno) and his support of Judge Sotomayor’s confirmation to the Supreme Court (demonstrating Christie’s common sense) are all steps toward defining the GOP brand as fiscally responsible and socially tolerant.

Also in play is the NJ State Assembly. In NJ there are two Assembly-people in each Legislative District. There was a scenario for the GOP to regain control of the chamber, needing eight seats for control, but no longer due to the Republican candidate recruitment stars not aligning. The Legislative Districts to watch if you are a Republicans are LD 1, 3, 14, and 36. LD 36 is an unlikely GOP pick-up as it features heavily minority (largely Hispanic) Passaic which will likely turn-out large numbers for the Democrats (this is where the Judge Sonia Sotomayor nomination/confirmation can help Democrats with turnout). LD 3 is a one seat strategy for the Republicans as the other GOP candidate there is referred to as the “KKK Guy,” NJ’s own David Duke without much chance of winning - thankfully.

If you are a Democrat, then LDs 2, 8, and 12 are on your list to watch. LD 2 is an unlikely pick-up for the Democrats because the western part of the district is more Alabama than NJ. The Democrats have zero chance of winning Burlington County’s LD 8. LD 12, which Obama won in ’08, features two moderate Republican freshmen and the best time to beat an incumbent is during the first term.

Now you know nearly as much as the personnel at the Republican Governors Association who will report the same to Gov. Barbour so he may make his own decisions about how to get Chris Christie elected as the 55th governor of New Jersey.

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