Governor Chris Christie’s record popularity since Hurricane Sandy ravaged New Jersey is prodding some Democrats in the state’s urban core to cross over and back the Republican for a second term they see as inevitable.
In heavily Democratic Hudson County, the most densely populated part of New Jersey, state Senator and Union City Mayor Brian Stack called him “Numero Uno.” In Harrison, where voters backed Democrat Jon Corzine over Christie by a 3-1 margin in the 2009 race, Mayor Raymond McDonough and the entire town council endorsed the 50-year-old governor last month.
As Christie enjoys the highest approval marks of any U.S. governor and almost half of Democratic voters say he deserves a second term, he faces only one challenger, state Senator Barbara Buono. She trails him by more than 40 percentage points. With Newark Mayor Cory Booker, former acting Governor Richard Codey and Senate President Stephen Sweeney all out of the race, some Democrats say backing the incumbent is their best move.
“It’s fairly mercenary,” said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute in West Long Branch. “If you’re pretty sure that this guy is going to have his hand on the spigot for the next four years, why not get behind him now? That’s what a lot of Democratic officeholders are thinking at this point.”
The early support in Hudson County shows Christie has been able to gain traction in areas that have traditionally voted for Democrats. It may offer an initial test of whether the governor can build upon that support and get party leaders in other parts of the state to side with him.
Christie has received backing for some of his proposals from prominent Democrats, including southern New Jersey party leader George Norcross and Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo. Neither has come out in support of Buono or Christie. Assemblyman John Wisniewski, chairman of the Democratic State Committee, said his party is mostly united around Buono, a 59-year-old Metuchen resident.
The governor’s race will lead a ticket in which all 120 seats of the Legislature are up for grabs. Democratic control of the Senate and Assembly has stymied Christie’s plans to cut income taxes and end public-employee payouts for unused sick time when they retire, and forced him to compromise on a levy cap and benefits overhaul.
Since taking office in January 2010, Christie has often bashed Democrats for failing to approve his proposals. At other times, he has touted his ability to compromise with them.
Christie, the first Republican elected New Jersey governor since 1997, won the 2009 race with 48 percent of the total vote to Corzine’s 45 percent, as voters rejected the one-term Democrat’s handling of the recession.
In Hudson County, voters backed Corzine that year. They haven’t supported a Republican for governor since 1985, when the popular Tom Kean won a 40 percentage point landslide in his re- election effort.
In 1997, when Republican Christine Todd Whitman was re- elected, she beat her Democratic challenger James McGreevey 47 percent to 46 percent, even after McGreevey won in all the counties that usually vote for Democrats, including Hudson and Essex.
Democrats have an advantage of 703,000 registered voters over Republicans in New Jersey. Independents make up almost half the electorate, outnumbering both major parties. The state’s voters backed Democrats in the last six presidential contests.
In a Feb. 12 Rutgers-Eagleton poll, Christie was beating Buono 63 percent to 21 percent. Even among Democrats, he led 42 percent to 38 percent. The governor is enjoying a record 74 percent approval rating for his response to Sandy, up from 56 percent before the Oct. 29 storm, according to a Quinnipiac University poll on Jan. 23.
The governor has managed to insert a wedge into the Democratic Party and exploit rifts among leaders that first surfaced in his race against Corzine, said Murray, the Monmouth pollster. Democratic leaders “sat on their hands” in that contest and withheld support for Corzine over lingering disputes and a perception that he overlooked lawmakers, Murray said.
McDonough, a Democrat who has been mayor of the Hudson County town of Harrison for 19 years, said he supported Christie’s property-tax cap and pension and benefits changes, and credits him for new jobs and development in the town.
“His approval is 74 percent, so what more could I say?” McDonough said during his Jan. 31 endorsement announcement with Christie at Tops Diner in East Newark.
Harrison, a community of 13,000 people across the Passaic River from Newark, had its credit rating cut to junk grade by Moody’s Investors Service in 2011 after the economic promise of a $200 million stadium for Major League Soccer’s Red Bulls failed to pan out. Moody’s in March issued an “enhanced rating” of A1 on some town bonds after the state stepped in with $1.5 million of additional aid to cover a payment on stadium debt.
McDonough, in a letter attached to the aid application, said Harrison would have “essentially” shut down without the money from Christie’s administration.
The governor, in accepting the Harrison endorsement, said he is looking forward to McDonough’s help in “recruiting new supporters -- especially here in deep blue Hudson County -- who recognize that when Republicans and Democrats work together, good things happen for New Jersey.”
Stack, the Union City mayor, has stopped short of formally endorsing Christie. Still, during a Feb. 7 speech at a ribbon- cutting for a local elementary school built with state money, he called Christie “the best governor in the history of New Jersey.” He and other Democrats refer to party members who support the governor’s moves as “Christiecrats.”
“He’ll fight with Republicans; he’ll fight with Democrats -- whatever is best for New Jersey,” said Stack, 46. He joined Democrats voting for Christie’s pension moves over the opposition of public-employee unions. “I don’t put too much stock into party labels.”
Norcross, the Democratic party leader who worked with the governor on his overhaul of the state university system, didn’t respond to e-mails or telephone calls seeking comment on whether he would endorse Buono.
DiVincenzo, who supported Christie’s pension changes, left an event today in Paterson without speaking to reporters. Philip Alagia, his chief of staff, said in a telephone interview that DiVincenzo hasn’t endorsed anyone and is “focused on governing right now.”
“There are lots of people who make up the Democratic Party, and no one endorsement or one elected official carries the sentiment of the entire Democratic Party,” Wisniewski said.
Democrats have “coalesced robustly” behind Buono, and will avoid a costly and divisive primary in June, Wisniewski said. He declined to speculate on why some members of his party have lined up with Christie.
Buono, speaking in Paterson at U.S. Senator Frank Lautenberg’s announcement that he won’t seek a sixth term, said she didn’t expect to see her party so united until April.
“The party coalesced around me earlier than I thought,” Buono said. “There are very few statewide races in New Jersey, so anytime there’s an opening you’re going to see a lot of jockeying.”
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