Republican Governor Chris Christie this week exhorted a “dispirited America” to follow New Jersey’s lead in bipartisan cooperation.
Democratic state lawmakers wonder what he’s talking about.
Christie, 51, was re-elected in a landslide victory after winning over women, Democratic, independent and minority voters. The potential 2016 presidential candidate made no such inroads with the legislature, which the same voters kept dominated by Democrats. During his first term, the body blocked Christie’s efforts to reshape the state Supreme Court and cut taxes, and sidestepped his opposition to same-sex marriage and a minimum-wage increase.
“We’re not afraid to do the things that we need to do,” said Senate President Stephen Sweeney. “We’re not going to back away from those things we believe in.”
The Democratic victories in legislative races were helped by record spending by independent special-interest groups. Eleven days before the election, New Jersey’s election was sixth among the 10 U.S. races that drew the most outside funding since 2006, according to the state Election Law Enforcement Commission, which cited data from the National Institute on Money in State Politics.
Within New Jersey, races and ballot questions drew a record $37.8 million from outside groups, more than twice the previous record in 2009, according to the commission.
The spending shows that in the state and across the nation, Democrats may be preparing to give Christie a rough second term, said former Governor Christie Whitman, a Republican. National Democrats want to keep a lock on the legislature to check Christie on issues such as Supreme Court nominations and his proposed tax cut, which she said would help him in a presidential primary.
Many groups “decided the governor was going to win big and it wasn’t worth spending their money there,” Whitman said Nov. 6 at the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University in New Brunswick. “What they did in this state and what they’ve done in a number of other states as well is spend their money on the legislative races to hold those seats.”
Christie, the first Republican elected New Jersey governor since Whitman in 1997, attracted Democrats and independent voters with his leadership after Hurricane Sandy struck the state in October 2012. In this week’s election, he became the first Republican gubernatorial candidate to win more than 60 percent of the vote since Tom Kean in 1985.
In an Oct. 23 Rutgers-Eagleton poll, 61 percent of respondents had a favorable view of Christie, and 85 percent approved of his Sandy response. Yet on their biggest concerns, the economy and jobs, his rating fell to 42 percent, and on taxes, it dropped to 38 percent.
Beyond the home-state popularity Christie built after Sandy, he has few selling points for a national Republican audience, according to Mo Elleithee, communications director of the Democratic National Committee.
“The Christie boomlet right now feels a little bit to me like the Rudy Giuliani boomlet, where people were saying, ‘Here’s a Republican who knows how to win in blue territory,’ after, in part, some sort of emotional connection to a national tragedy,” Elleithee told reporters. “We’ve seen that model before and it’s not transferable and it’s not sustainable.”
Giuliani, buoyed by approval for his leadership as New York City mayor after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack, abandoned his bid for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination after a poor showing in primaries.
That Christie praised Democratic President Barack Obama during a post-Sandy tour wasn’t evidence of bipartisan spirit, said Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, 78, a Democrat from Teaneck.
“I’m sorry, but he can say it because he and Barack Obama shook hands and gave each other a man hug?” she said yesterday. “That’s the president’s job, to come and deal with people in a state that suffered a major catastrophe, and that’s the governor’s job, to help the residents of New Jersey.”
Christie, speaking to reporters publicly for the first time in more than a month in Union City on Nov. 6, attributed Democrats’ success to legislative maps redrawn in 2011 after the census.
“Republican Senate candidates across the state got 100,000 more votes than Democrats and they didn’t win one seat,” Christie said. “That’s a pretty well gerrymandered map. I won by 22 points and we didn’t win one Senate seat.”
Democrats have led the New Jersey Assembly since 2002 and the Senate since 2004. They controlled the governor’s office from 2002 to 2010, when Christie ousted Jon Corzine after voters rejected the incumbent’s handling of the recession.
Christie’s first-term successes included 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 in the state, including Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo, who endorsed him over his Democratic challenger, state Senator Barbara Buono.
Senator Ray Lesniak, an Elizabeth Democrat, said yesterday that cooperation will go only so far.
“We’ve pulled our punches too often and we sat down when we should have stood up,” Lesniak said. “We now have four years of Democratic control in the Senate without having to worry about whether Chris Christie’s popularity will affect our position and majority.”