Gubernatorial Race Will Show if Jersey GOP Has a Pulse

by Stuart Rothenberg January 18, 2009 · 11:05 PM EST

This year’s gubernatorial race in New Jersey would seem to be a prime opportunity for a Republican pickup. But sometimes, things aren’t as they seem.

On the plus side for the GOP, Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine hasn’t had the easiest first term, the state’s budget problems are likely to grow as the recession shrinks state revenue and Republicans finally seem to have the candidate they’ve been waiting for: former U.S. Attorney Chris Christie.

But this is New Jersey, a state where Republican prospects have gone from bad to worse recently, and where Republicans often seem more interested in attacking each other than in defeating Democrats.

In 2006, state Sen. Tom Kean Jr. ran a spirited but underfunded Senate campaign, losing by 9 points to Democrat Bob Menendez. And Kean’s 44.3 percent statewide was a pretty good showing compared to other recent elections. Only President George W. Bush’s 46.6 percent showing in 2004 was better.

Last year, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) drew just 41.7 percent against President-elect Barack Obama, while GOP Senate candidate Dick Zimmer drew just 42 percent against Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D). Four years ago, Republican Doug Forrester drew 43 percent against Corzine in an open-seat contest, and four years before that, in 2001, conservative Republican Bret Schundler drew 41.7 percent against Democrat Jim McGreevey.

Over the past 30 years, only two Republicans running for president, governor or the Senate in New Jersey drew a majority of the total votes cast — Ronald Reagan twice and George H.W. Bush in 1988. Even Christine Todd Whitman, who won two terms as governor in the 1990s, failed to crack the 50 percent mark in either of her races.

But partisanship generally means less in gubernatorial races than in Senate contests, and the Bush era has finally passed (or has it?), so the GOP’s national problems are likely to be less relevant in this year’s gubernatorial race in the Garden State.

The race for the Republican nomination currently includes four candidates: Christie, Morris County state Assemblyman/former deputy state Attorney General Rick Merkt, former Bogota Mayor Steve Lonegan (Bergen County) and Franklin Mayor Brian Levine (Somerset County).

Christie, 46, served briefly on the Morris County board of freeholders but lost a bid for re-election. He then made a huge name for himself as a corruption-fighting prosecutor.

He was appointed a U.S. attorney by George W. Bush on Dec. 7, 2001, and stayed on in that office until late November 2008, when he resigned. Christie was mentioned as a possible candidate for governor in 2005 but passed on that race.

As U.S. attorney, Christie prosecuted well over 100 public officials, getting convictions against then-Essex County Executive Jim Treffinger (R), then-Newark Mayor Sharpe James (D), former state Senate President John Lynch (D) and Camden County state Sen. Wayne Bryant (D), among others.

Many GOP insiders have already started to rally behind Christie, including Kean, the state Senate Minority Leader, and Rep. Frank LoBiondo.

The most notable of Christie’s competitors at this point is Lonegan, a legally blind former three-term mayor of a small town in North Jersey and an anti-tax, anti-illegal-immigration conservative. Lonegan ran unsuccessfully for the GOP gubernatorial nomination in 2005 and for Congress, against Rep. Steven Rothman (D), in 1998.

Lonegan’s top consultant, Richard Shaftan, has been active in Garden State politics for years and invariably sees every campaign in ideological terms. It’s no wonder, then, that Lonegan has already said that the race for the Republican nomination will be “a battle for the soul of the Republican Party.” (Someone might want to tell Lonegan that the battle actually is a contest for governor of New Jersey.)

Conservatives can pull surprises in primaries, and we don’t yet know how this race will develop. Christie’s position on issues, particularly on controversial ones, is the subject of some discussion among those on the right. But it’s pretty clear that Lonegan would have zero chance of defeating Corzine in November, and consultant Shaftan didn’t exactly make himself look like the Oracle of Trenton when he was quoted in December by as saying that Christie is “absolutely not running.”

Polls show Christie within range of Corzine. But incumbents always seem to underperform in the state, and even Democrats who won with some ease recently started off looking as if they were in tough races.

A Nov. 12-17 Quinnipiac University poll showed Corzine holding a 42 percent to 36 percent lead over Christie in a trial heat, but 70 percent of those polled said that they didn’t know enough about the Republican to have a favorable or unfavorable opinion of him. Corzine’s name ID in the survey stood at 42 percent favorable/43 percent unfavorable. A Sept. 9-11 Research 2000 poll for the Record in Bergen showed Corzine leading Christie 43 percent to 41 percent.

Corzine has been telling insiders for months that he expects a Christie challenge and that the former U.S. attorney would be a formidable opponent. But the governor’s personal financial resources, his incumbency and his Democratic label are all assets in his bid for re-election, and he has become a confident, politically astute officeholder since he first ran for the U.S. Senate in 2000.

Moreover, the GOP race could well get nasty, and Christie’s performance is uncertain.

Republicans have an opportunity in the Garden State, but they will need to overcome recent political trends as well as their own penchant for self-destruction. Given that, it’s probably unwise at this point to bet too heavily against Corzine winning another term.