As New Jersey Governor Chris Christie leads his opponent by as much as 34 percentage points in his bid for a second term, some Democrats say they’re worried that votes for the incumbent Republican will trickle down the ballot.
At stake may be control of the legislature, where all 120 seats also are up for grabs. Christie’s dominance over state Senator Barbara Buono, the Democratic candidate for governor, is giving hopes to Republican lawmakers that they could make inroads after being out of power for the past decade.
Republicans would need to win nine seats to take over the Assembly and five for the Senate. Democratic control has stymied Christie’s efforts to reshape the state Supreme Court, which has ruled against some of his spending cuts. Though polls suggest Christie’s coattails won’t be long, Democrats say he may be able to swing enough of the races to shift power.
“It’s obviously a concern for us,” said Assemblyman Troy Singleton, a Democrat from Willingboro who won his seat by 2 percentage points in 2011. “The governor is polling very strong and we’d be neglecting our duties if we didn’t think that could have an effect.”
Christie, 51, was the first Republican elected New Jersey governor since 1997. He became a national figure by raising public employee contributions to pensions and benefits, vetoing tax increases for millionaires and leveling insults at critics.
The governor’s approval rating surged for his response to Hurricane Sandy, which struck Oct. 29, devastating some coastal towns. He’s seeking re-election in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans by about 700,000 registered voters.
Buono, 60, has labored to overcome Christie’s resonance with voters and a fundraising edge of more than $11 million. Some of the state’s most powerful Democrats, including Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo, have endorsed Christie.
Adding to Buono’s struggles was Christie’s decision to call a special Oct. 16 U.S. Senate election for the seat held by Frank Lautenberg, a five-term Democrat who died in June. That timing keeps the popular Democratic candidate in that race, Newark Mayor Cory Booker, off the November ballot and denies the opposition party any chance of its own coattails.
If polls are any indication, Christie’s influence won’t result in major legislative gains. In a Sept. 25 poll of likely voters by Quinnipiac University, 22 percent said his support of a candidate would make them more likely to vote for the person. Six in 10 said it wouldn’t sway them.
Still, Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean, a Republican from Westfield, said his party has a good shot of picking up the five seats needed in his chamber to gain a majority.
Competitive races include the Senate seat Buono vacated to run for governor, which represents part of Middlesex County. Assemblyman Peter Barnes, a Democrat from Edison, faces East Brunswick Mayor David Stahl, who switched parties to “join Christie” as a Republican.
In the 38th district, centered on Bergen County suburbs, Democratic Senator Robert Gordon has courted voters by touting his ability to work with Christie. The governor, meanwhile, has campaigned for Gordon’s challenger, Republican Fernando Alonso.
Gains by Republicans in New Jersey this year would reverse a tide that saw Democrats across the U.S. pick up about 150 seats last year and recapture eight chambers they lost in 2010, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
In New Jersey, the prime battleground this year has been the Senate, where lawmakers have the ability to hold up the governor’s nominations to judicial posts and cabinet positions.
That has limited Christie’s efforts to remake the state’s highest court, which he says has “legislated from the bench” with decisions that funneled extra money to poor schools and forced communities to build affordable housing. The Senate Judiciary Committee has blocked Christie’s picks. The seven-member court is operating with five permanent justices.
Voters are tired of such Democratic tactics, Kean said.
“People are looking for a different direction,” he said. “People like what the governor is doing for this state, they like the pride he’s bringing back and the national attention he’s getting, and they’ll support people who want that kind of vigorous change.”
Kevin Roberts, a spokesman for Christie’s campaign, said it sees “a lot of opportunities” in Assembly races. He declined to say where Christie is allocating his time and resources.
Christie told reporters Sept. 18 in Trenton that he’s often joined at stops by Republicans running for office, which he said is tantamount to campaigning for them.
“I’m working for the entire Republican ticket all the time,” Christie said. “By just showing up, I think I help our Republican candidates lower on the ballot.”
Senate President Stephen Sweeney, a Democrat from West Deptford, said he expects the governor’s race to tighten in the final weeks and he anticipates returning all of his members.
“One thing you can’t discount is that there are 700,000 more Democrats and I wouldn’t be happy about that number if I was on the other side,” he said. “I feel very confident, but I would not take anything for granted.”
New Jersey and Virginia are the only states with governor’s races this year. Christie is the only incumbent running because Virginia’s Bob McDonnell is term-limited.
In 2011, the last time all 120 legislative seats were up for grabs, Christie campaigned for Republican candidates and drew out-of-state donations. Republicans still lost one seat, after a panel redrawing New Jersey’s 40 legislative districts approved an electoral map that favored Democrats.
“There’s only a handful of districts that are really competitive with strong challengers and well-financed candidates on both sides,” said Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University in Lawrenceville. “The Democrats in those districts have the advantage going into the last weeks of the campaign because of the makeup, the way the lines were cut was designed to favor Democrats in those districts.”
In the districts targeted by the Republicans, Democrats’ margin of victory was less than 10 percentage points in 2011, Kean said. Republicans in those districts have been knocking on doors since January to get in front of voters.
Justin Myers, executive director of the Democratic State Committee, said any party that has spent a decade in power has to be concerned about a potential backlash. Still, he expects his party to rack up victories.
“We’re in an election year where of course the top of the ticket for the Republicans is a governor that unfortunately is very popular with a lot of people in New Jersey and across the country,” Myers said. “You’ve got to always run scared or you shouldn’t run at all.”