President Barack Obama hugged Chris Christie. Bill Clinton shook his hand. Thirty-one Democrats endorsed the Republican New Jersey governor’s re-election bid.
The New Jersey Democratic Party, meanwhile, has squabbled over its leadership, given way on worker pensions and teacher tenure and split on issues from gun control to gay marriage. Its gubernatorial candidate trails by 30 percentage points.
Christie, 50, has the opposition in disarray as he seeks a second term in November -- and a possible 2016 White House run.
“He has kind of devastated the Democrats in New Jersey,” said Matt Hale, who teaches politics at Seton Hall University in South Orange.
Christie set a process for replacing deceased U.S. Senator Frank Lautenberg that forces a four-way Democratic primary and may stunt party turnout in the November general election. A Christie landslide might help his party pick up legislative seats and burnish the governor’s presidential qualifications.
The first Republican elected to the governorship since 1997, Christie leads his Democratic challenger, state Senator Barbara Buono, 59 percent to 29 percent, according to a June 10 poll by Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Connecticut. He enjoys approval from about two-thirds of voters after his response to Hurricane Sandy, which devastated parts of the state Oct. 29.
In Sandy’s aftermath, Christie forged a relationship with Obama that angered some Republicans. This month, he appeared with Clinton at a Chicago conference to talk with the Democratic former president about the storm.
While New Jersey voters may respond well to Christie’s embrace of bipartisanship, voters in a 2016 Republican presidential primary may not, said Nathan Gonzalez, deputy editor of The Rothenberg Report, a Washington-based newsletter.
“When he gets to the Republican nominating process, he’s going to get as far away as he can from Bill Clinton and Barack Obama,” said Democratic lobbyist Steven Elmendorf of Washington, who’s a native of Summit, New Jersey. “He appears to be an effective governor who works with the president. But it’s going to hurt him in the Republican primary because they don’t want him to work with the president.”
New Jersey voters haven’t elected a Republican to the Senate since 1972 and backed Democrats in the past six presidential contests. Democrats control the legislature and outnumber Republicans by more than 700,000 voters. Independents outnumber members of both parties and compose 48 percent of the state’s electorate.
Buono, a 59-year-old Metuchen lawyer, became her party’s candidate after more popular Democrats, including Newark Mayor Cory Booker, decided not to challenge Christie.
She remains unknown to more than half of voters and has $2.6 million for her campaign, less than half of Christie’s $6.5 million.
Ahead of the November election, when all 120 legislative seats are also up for grabs, Democratic lawmakers have been slow to stand with Buono. Those who endorsed Christie say supporting him is their best move because he’s likely to win.
Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo, one of the state’s most influential Democrats, endorsed Christie this month. He was joined by more than a dozen other officials and community leaders from Essex County, where Democrats outnumber Republicans almost five-to-one. Four years ago, Christie received only 27 percent of the vote there.
“He embraced President Obama a week before the election and he told his party it’s about New Jersey,” DiVincenzo said at the announcement. “What he’s shown is a willingness to work across the aisle.”
Christie has won legislative approval to overhaul tenure and pensions, considered rights by public-employee unions that typically support Democrats. He succeeded after forging alliances with prominent Democrats, including DiVincenzo, Booker and southern New Jersey party leader George Norcross.
“The governor’s political skills have kept Democrats largely on their heels,” said Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute of New Jersey Politics at Rider University in Lawrenceville.
While Christie has scored political victories, reaction to his leadership in the $3.7 trillion municipal-bond market has been mixed.
Investors demand less in 2013 to buy New Jersey bonds. Yields on 10-year debt sold by the state and its localities were 0.40 percentage point more than comparable top-rated municipal debt on June 19. That’s down from 0.54 percentage point on Dec. 31, 2012.
Still, that penalty has widened by 0.05 percentage point since Christie was sworn in on Jan. 19, 2010.
New Jersey, which Standard & Poor’s rates AA-, three steps below top-graded municipals, has had a negative outlook from the company since September because of concerns about Christie’s budget forecasts.
His administration was forced to lower revenue estimates for this fiscal year after taxes came in lower than forecast. For the 10 months ended April 30, collections are 0.2 percent above revised projections, according to the state’s Treasury Department.
With a Republican governor, Democratic lawmakers have been unable to increase income taxes on millionaires, legalize gay marriage or increase budgets. Last week they approved Christie’s $32.9 billion spending plan for the year that begins July 1 with few changes.
They did so after months of criticizing it.
Democrats, who control the Senate 24-16 and the Assembly 48-32, have disagreed over how to get around Christie. He vetoed a gay-marriage bill in 2012. Some lawmakers argued for putting the question to a referendum while others wanted to sway Republicans so they had enough votes for an override.
Neither effort succeeded.
There are a few areas in which Democrats have stood in Christie’s way. They blocked his tax cuts, and attempts to put more Republicans on the state Supreme Court.
Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean, a Westfield Republican, said his party may pick up five Senate seats in November with the governor’s help, enough to give them a majority.
Doing so won’t be easy, even with Christie’s help. Voters prefer generic Democrats over Republicans in the legislature by 16 percentage points, a June 17 Rutgers-Eagleton poll found.
“If you look at the most recent polling about New Jerseyans’ attitudes toward a host of different issues, I’d say on the whole we’re still a pretty blue state -- but we like Chris Christie,” Seton Hall’s Hale said. “Yes, Christie can be a bully and he can pick on people and all that, but that comes across as someone who is just figuring out how to get stuff done, and that’s a very appealing message.”
Senate President Stephen Sweeney, a West Deptford Democrat, blamed the party’s struggle on its size, not on Christie. Under Christie’s predecessor, Jon Corzine, Democrats splintered over pensions and taxes, and had a week-long government shutdown after lawmakers resisted Corzine’s call for a sales-tax increase.
“It’s just being in the majority,” Sweeney said. “We fought with Corzine on a regular basis. It’s just more apparent when you have a Republican governor.”
“It would be kind of scary if we all agreed.”