New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, whose approval rating has slid since he took office in January, may be harming the election prospects of his party’s lawmakers as he battles with the teachers’ union and fights with Democrats over his refusal to reappoint the Supreme Court’s lone black justice.
The first gauge of public support for the Republican governor, who proposed cutting spending by $10 billion to close a record budget gap, may come in November 2011, when all 120 members of the Legislature face re-election two years before he does. Democrats, who hold a 700,000-voter registration advantage in New Jersey, control the Assembly 47-33 and the Senate 23-17.
“The Republicans in the Legislature are going to be up for re-election before Chris Christie,” said Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute of New Jersey Politics at Rider University in Lawrenceville. “If there’s going to be any public wrath, it’s them who will face it first.”
Christie, the first Republican elected New Jersey governor since 1997, ousted incumbent Jon Corzine in November as voters concerned about joblessness and home foreclosures punished Democrats. Christie started his term with 48 percent of voters supporting him in a poll by Fairleigh Dickinson University’s PublicMind. Approval rose to 52 percent in early March, and then fell to 43 percent by the end of that month after he unveiled his first budget. In the most recent survey on Christie, an April 23 poll by SurveyUSA, 33 percent approved of him.
The governor, 47, says he doesn’t care about polls. He wants to reduce public-worker salaries and benefits, saying they’re to blame for the state’s highest-in-the-nation property taxes. Earlier this week, he angered Democrats with a decision to replace state Supreme Court Justice John Wallace, the first sitting member to be denied tenure since the current state Constitution was adopted in 1947.
“I’m staking out a position: that’s what I’m paid to do,” Christie told reporters yesterday in Montclair. The town of 37,000 people will lose 61 percent of $9 million in state school funding in the coming year under the governor’s budget.
“I’ll tell you what the real people of New Jersey are telling me,” Christie said. “They’re saying, ‘Governor, do what you said you’d do.’ That’s what I’m going to do.”
Christie isn’t the only Republican facing voter backlash in states battling record deficits. In California, Republican gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman trailed Democrat Jerry Brown 38 percent to 44 percent in an April 21 Rasmussen poll. They were tied a month earlier. Whitman, the former EBay Inc. chief executive officer, has been criticized by rivals for her ties to Goldman Sachs Group Inc.
In Arizona, Republican Governor Jan Brewer’s April 23 signing of a law targeting illegal immigration sparked demonstrations by civil rights groups and criticism from political leaders including President Barack Obama. Brewer faces re-election this year.
Christie has proposed a $29.3 billion budget that closes a $10.7 billion deficit without raising taxes. His plan for the fiscal year that starts July 1 includes cutting aid for education by $820 million, charging seniors a $310 deductible for prescription-drug coverage and ending state funding for low- cost school breakfasts.
Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver, a Democrat from East Orange, said Christie’s plans will help her party in 2011.
“We’re in a good position, given some of the policies rolled out so far, and there will be more,” she said in an interview. “They are policies that won’t be embraced by a majority of New Jersey.”
Democratic lawmakers said they won’t pass Christie’s proposals unless he resurrects an income-tax surcharge on residents earning $400,000 or more. Christie refuses. New Jersey’s credit rating may be lowered if he and lawmakers fail to adopt a budget within a week of the start of the new fiscal year, Moody’s Investors Service said in an April 30 report.
Christie also faces opposition from the New Jersey Education Association, the state’s teachers’ union. He urged voters last month to reject school budgets in districts where teachers refused to accept pay freezes to deal with his cuts. The NJEA ran television and radio ads attacking Christie.
“If you want to be a popular politician in New Jersey this is not what you do,” Christie told high school students March 30 in Montclair.
The April 20 school elections marked the first time in more than three decades that voters in the second-wealthiest state by income shot down a majority of budgets, as districts sought tax increases to make up for reduced state funding. New Jersey’s real-estate levies climbed 56 percent from 2001 to an average $7,281 in 2009, according to state data.
Republican State Committee Chairman Jay Webber, an assemblyman from Morris Plains, said the school elections showed Christie’s “cut spending” message has caught on with voters. He said the legislative races are too far away to predict the governor’s impact.
“Issues change; players change; and we’ll have a record of success,” Webber said. “We can’t pander to every interest group that comes looking for more money. The state is broke.”
Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean, a Republican from Westfield, said his party is betting voters’ concerns will be about whether Christie and lawmakers cut property taxes and shrank government. He predicted his party would capture a majority of Senate seats for the first time since 2001.
“People understand that there are some very, very difficult decisions that are being made right now,” said Kean, the son of Thomas Kean, the Republican governor from 1982 to 1990. “What people are going to be looking for during the next almost two years is what are the job creation efforts, tax reduction efforts and how did we make New Jersey more affordable.”
Public-employee unions in New Jersey typically endorse Democrats. From 1973 to 2003, the NJEA backed Democrats over Republicans by a margin of 62 percent to 38 percent, and 81 percent of their candidates were victorious, according to data supplied by the union.
Candidates’ “support for public education” will factor into the group’s endorsements for the 2011 elections, said Steve Baker, a spokesman for the NJEA.
“We are watching what’s going on now, and we will work to elect people who support us,” Baker said.
Sixty-three percent of voters disapproved of Christie in the April 23 SurveyUSA poll, which was conducted for WABC-TV and had a margin of error of 4 percentage points. That compared with 13 percent disapproval in PublicMind’s January poll, which had an error margin of 3.5 points. Four years ago, Corzine’s disapproval also shot up over the initial months of his term.
“Everything is perilous for the governor right now,” said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University polling center in West Long Branch.
The defeat of school budgets “wasn’t a blanket endorsement of his cuts,” Murray said. “The issue is going to be whether voters start to see him picking these fights as some kind of a vendetta.”