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New Jersey Governor Showdown

A Commentary by Joseph Figueroa

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Before we dive into New Jersey's surprisingly intriguing 2009 race for governor, let us premise everything that follows on the fact that any Republican running in New Jersey enters the batter's box with two strikes, two outs, nobody on, and down two runs. Let us not kid ourselves, here.

That being said, Gov. Jon Corzine is in trouble. The former Goldman Sachs CEO turned governor has experienced his share of miserable moments during the past three-plus years: from New Jersey's 2006 government shutdown, to the Garden State Parkway and New Jersey Turnpike toll-hike fiasco--not to mention the whole almost-dying-for-not-wearing-a-seatbelt incident (to any kids reading this: going 90 miles-per-hour on the Garden State Parkway is not a good idea, especially without a seatbelt). The election year budget proposal that was recently released provides no rest for the politically weary, as the economic meltdown has created a $7 billion budget shortfall and it keeps getting larger by the month.

In an attempt to reign in the deficit, Corzine has been forced to include in his budget such wildly-popular proposals as tax increases, elimination of property tax rebates, and involuntary unpaid furloughs for state employees. (And no, those really aren't popular). As a result, the governor has seen his opinion poll numbers take a complete nosedive, going from a decent favorable/unfavorable rating of 46/40 in January to a mark of 33/56 in April. Ouch! Those are danger-zone numbers for any politician hoping for reelection. There have been rumblings about a potential coup against the embattled governor from within the party, but as more Democrats slowly get behind him, the chances of that dwindle close to zero at this point. We'll never know what would have happened in this race if Corzine had bowed out in favor of someone like well-known state senate president Richard Codey. But Corzine is in, so we will check the counter-factuals at the door.

The Republican primary has a number of candidates, but former U.S. Attorney Christopher J. Christie looks to have a distinct advantage in the race. Christie has jumped out to an early lead in the polls, and he has received the bulk of the state's Republican organizational support. Former Bogota mayor and 2005 gubernatorial candidate Steve Lonegan may give Christie a run for his money--but Christie's reputation as a crime fighter with his perfect prosecutorial record is already playing well with the electorate. The diminutive New Jersey conservative movement has been quietly groaning about the prospect of the relatively moderate Christie. However, let's not forget that the only two elected GOP governors of New Jersey during the past 30 years, Thomas Kean and Christie Todd Whitman, were the epitome of moderate Republicanism, and they both won by the narrowest of margins in three out of their four election bids.

The G.O.P. faithful have had nothing to complain about with regards to three recent polls, all of which have Christie leading Corzine (the INCUMBENT, DEMOCRATIC governor of NEW JERSEY) by seven, nine, and ... wait for it ... fifteen points! See what I meant by calling this race "intriguing"? Such gaudy numbers for Christie give Republicans great encouragement about the early inning lead.

Still, let's put emphasis on the word early , and this is the deeply blue Garden State. New Jersey's Democratic organization is a dominant force. Republicans are, right off the bat, basically forced to concede densely populated and voter-rich areas such as Essex and Hudson Counties, which routinely run up the score for Democratic candidates on Election Night. Throw in the fact that Corzine will lap ANY opponent (including Christie) many times over in spending with his personal wealth--as well as the reality that the New York and Philadelphia media markets that dominate New Jersey are exceedingly expensive to compete in--and you get an electoral picture in which a man of Corzine's immense bank account is never out of the race.

All of these forces combine to create quite the intriguing ballgame, sports fans. And we can't forget that 2009 marks the first time New Jersey will elect a Lieutenant Governor. Previously messy gubernatorial vacancies that resulted in the president of the New Jersey Senate simultaneously serving as acting governor raised Separation of Powers questions (the aforementioned Codey was acting governor three times, for a total of over fifteen months), and inspired a popular referendum to be passed in 2005 creating the office of New Jersey LG.

Furthermore, Corzine and Christie obviously have plenty to talk about with the incumbent's record, but, as in Virginia, this race could come down to a referendum on the first year of the Obama administration. The economy clearly has hit New Jersey as hard as any other state, with many New York City commuters across the Hudson River being decimated by the financial mess on Wall Street. A lot will depend on how those affected feel in November. Being an off-year election, both sides are already looking to throw everything but the kitchen sink into this race--especially the GOP, as evidenced by the (very early) Anti-Corzine media blitz and Web site set up by the Republican Governor's Association.

One thing is clear: There may be two strikes against the Republican Christie, but Corzine has been forced to balk, and this race already has gotten very interesting.

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