New Jersey Governor: You Have 4 Months To Learn to Say ‘Gov. Chris Christie’

by Stuart Rothenberg August 3, 2009 · 9:00 AM EDT

The raid last week in New Jersey that resulted in the arrest of 44 people, including a number of officeholders, probably is the straw that breaks Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine’s back in November. When I asked one longtime Democratic insider about the race, it took him all of two words to assess Corzine’s prospects: “It’s over.” Another Garden State Democrat was more cautious, saying only, “It’s almost over.”

All eyes will now be on the governor, to see whether he follows the lead of former Sen. Robert Torricelli (D-N.J.), who dropped his Senate candidacy late in 2002 when he and party insiders came to believe that he could very well lose his seat to the Republican challenger. Party leaders then picked former Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D) to replace him on the ballot, and Lautenberg went on to win in the fall.

Corzine’s ethics are not the issue, of course. His major problem is the state’s economy, which includes the budget.

But after the raid, Garden State voters are now more likely to kill two birds with one vote — expressing their disappointment with the governor’s economic performance while also finally making a statement about ethics, corruption and good government. That’s exactly what happened in Louisiana in 2007, when Bobby Jindal (R) was elected governor.

During the July FBI raid, authorities arrested a number of former and current officeholders, including Hoboken Mayor Peter Cammarano III, Secaucus Mayor Dennis Elwell, Jersey City Deputy Mayor Leona Beldini and Jersey City Council President Mariano Vega, all Hudson County Democrats. Ocean County Assemblyman Daniel Van Pelt was the lone Republican arrested in the sting.

For months, polls have shown Christie holding anywhere from a 6-point to a 12-point lead over Corzine, who served five years in the Senate before winning the governorship in 2005. Polls have shown the governor draws 38 percent to 41 percent in ballot tests, a sign of his weak position, and he is losing too much support among blue-collar Democrats and independent voters.

“Independents,” one veteran New Jersey Democrat told me, “have stopped listening to the governor. He is well-known to them, and they are ready to move on.”

Christie is perfectly positioned to benefit from growing voter embarrassment with the state’s reputation as an ethical cesspool. He recently added Monmouth County Sheriff Kim Guadagno, a 50-year-old former federal prosecutor, to his ticket as lieutenant governor.

Guadagno is a former assistant U.S. attorney (where she was deputy chief of the Corruption Unit) and deputy director of the state Division of Criminal Justice. She favors abortion rights.

Over the weekend, Corzine made his picket for his running mate, selecting state Sen. Loretta Weinberg, 74, of Bergen County.

Weinberg, who has served for more than a decade in the Assembly, is known as a hard campaigner and a reformer (as well as an adversary of a former powerful Bergen County Democratic leader who is awaiting trial on corruption charges). The state Senator, who lost much of her savings in the Bernie Madoff investment scam, is also regarded as very liberal.

Weinberg’s reputation as a reformer ordinarily would be an asset. But with state Democrats buried under an avalanche of bad news, her nomination isn’t likely to change the foul odor coming from state party circles. And Weinberg is widely disliked by Democratic county chairmen, who traditionally are responsible for running the all-important county organizations in the state and for getting Democratic voters to the polls on Election Day.

“County [party] leaders don’t like Loretta. They find her anti-party-structure. They feel that she’s unable to do anything but complain,” one Democrat told me recently.

It didn’t take long for the New York Times to report that Rep. Frank Pallone and Newark Mayor Cory Booker were expressing interest in replacing Corzine as the Democratic nominee if the governor were to announce that he had decided against running for re-election.

But Corzine, who didn’t come up through the state Democratic machine and now has a running mate, insists that he is in the race until November. Unlike Torricelli, who, one Garden State Democrat observed, needed to find work after the election and knew that he couldn’t afford to just blow up the party, Corzine is financially secure and can afford to ignore the consequences of remaining in the contest.

The comeback by then-Gov. Brendan Byrne (D), who trailed his GOP opponent by an even bigger margin in 1977 than Corzine now trails Christie, is certain to give Corzine at least a faint hope of victory. That hope and the governor’s stubbornness argue against a quick exit. Most insiders see only about a 1-in-5 chance that the governor will end his re-election bid.

Democratic strategists aren’t yet certain what kind of a year their party will have in November, though they think a 5-point loss by Corzine and modest losses downballot is the most likely scenario. But they acknowledge that a much bigger Corzine defeat (in the order of 10 or 12 points) is possible, along with correspondingly larger losses in the Assembly and in local races.

Whatever the outcome, 2009 will be at the very least a decent year for Garden State Republicans, and possibly something much better. The result, one Democrat told me recently, is that the message of November will be that New Jersey once again is a two-party state. And Republicans are likely to trumpet that comeback nationally.