Christie Thwarted as Democrats Likely to Hold Legislature

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has advantages as he seeks re-election. The Republican leads his Democratic challenger by more than 40 percentage points. He’s out-raised her 10-fold. He’s even won over some members of the opposition party.

Yet in a state where Democrats hold a voter advantage and have led the Senate and Assembly for 12 years, that’s probably not enough to gain a Republican edge in the Legislature. Christie sits atop the ticket in a year when all 120 legislative seats are also in contention, leading lawmakers in his party to bank on his success filtering down to local races.

Democratic control of the Legislature has forced Christie to compromise on a tax cap and benefits overhaul, and stymied his efforts to reduce levies and ban public employee payouts for unused sick time. He has urged voters to elect a Republican majority to speed up passage of his agenda. The governor is now battling with lawmakers over revenue shortfalls and oversight of $36 billion in spending to rebuild from Hurricane Sandy.

“The governor has tremendous personal appeal; he’s a hugely talented political leader,” said Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University in Lawrenceville. “That makes him an effective politician, but those skills and that goodwill are not necessarily transferable. People will split tickets.”

Sandy Bump

Democrats hold an edge of 48-32 in the Assembly and 24-16 in the Senate. The party has an advantage of 703,000 registered voters over Republicans. Independents make up almost half the electorate, outnumbering both major parties. New Jersey voters backed Democrats in the last six presidential contests.

Christie, the first Republican elected New Jersey governor since 1997, 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. Fifty-six percent of Democrats and 78 percent of independents support Christie over his Democratic challenger, state Senator Barbara Buono, the poll found.

Assemblyman John Wisniewski, chairman of the Democratic State Committee, said Christie’s popularity will wane. Property taxes, school aid and the state’s pension-funding gap will become front-burner issues as the election nears, he said.

New Jersey tax collections were trailing Christie’s projections by $426 million as of the end of December. He has said midyear budget cuts may be needed. Democratic lawmakers have refused to approve Christie’s proposal for a 10 percent income-tax cut until revenue meets his targets.

Spending Woes

Democrats also are questioning the state’s award of a Sandy debris-removal job to Ashbritt Inc., calling it a $100 million “no-bid contract.” Christie has denied such claims and said he would provide transparency in funding for recovery.

“Nobody holds those kinds of numbers for a year,” Wisniewski said. “Those numbers are the result largely of Hurricane Sandy and the opinions people had at that time. He’s all coat and no tail. Coattails in New Jersey are very rare, quite frankly. Legislative seats are decided on a district-by-district basis, not a statewide basis.”

In 2011, the last time all 120 seats in the Legislature were up for grabs, Christie campaigned for Republican candidates and drew out-of-state donations, as he enjoyed a 58 percent approval rating. Still, Republicans lost one seat in the Legislature, after a panel redrawing New Jersey’s 40 legislative districts approved an electoral map that favored Democrats.

Democratic Edge

The legislative boundaries are redrawn every 10 years, after the census, to reflect population shifts. After the last redrawing in 2001, Democrats nabbed both houses in New Jersey. Two years later, under Democratic Governor James McGreevey, the party expanded that majority.

Brigid Harrison, a professor of law and politics at Montclair State University, said the political boundaries are gerrymandered along party lines and to protect incumbents. While Republicans may pick up a seat or two, a full takeover of either house isn’t likely under the Democratic-friendly map approved in April, she said.

“Legislative districts tend to be configured to be heavily partisan, so we’re not talking about a neutral playing field where the best party wins,” Harrison said in a telephone interview. “That constraint means there’s really very little in terms of competitive state legislative districts.”

Two Races

New Jersey and Virginia are the only states with races for governor this year. Each legislative district in New Jersey elects two Assembly members and one senator. Assembly members serve two-year terms while senators serve for four years, except for the first term of a new decade, which is two years.

Republican gains in New Jersey this year would reverse a tide that saw Democrats across the U.S. gain about 150 seats last year and recapture eight chambers they lost in 2010, according to the nonpartisan National Conference of State Legislatures. Since 1900, the party winning the White House has gained legislative seats in 21 of 29 elections, the group said.

State Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean, a Republican from Westfield, said his party has a shot to gain at least five seats in his chamber, with Christie’s help, which would give them a majority. Vulnerable districts this year include the one for the Cape May area, which has been represented by both Democrats and Republicans in recent years, Kean said. The incumbent senator, Democrat Jeff Van Drew, said he hasn’t decided whether to seek another term.

“There’s no force that’s insurmountable,” Van Drew said of Christie’s popularity.

Christie Message

Christie told reporters in Sea Girt yesterday that if he runs a strong campaign, communicates his message and raises enough money, that can rub off on other races. The strength of individual hopefuls is a bigger factor than district demographics in deciding who will win, he said.

“I’m just going to work as hard as I can to get my message out there and hope to get support from people to be re-elected,” Christie said. “If I do my job well, I think that will have a positive effect down-ballot for my party.”

The governor led Buono 63 percent to 22 percent in Quinnipiac’s Jan. 23 poll. Buono formally entered the race Feb. 2. Christie raised $2.1 million for the election through December, while Buono raised $212,927, according to campaign-finance reports.

Whether Republicans can use Christie’s popularity to wrest control of the Legislature will be determined by how big a margin he can muster, Dworkin said. A 40 percentage-point victory would mean he entices new people to polls who are there to vote specifically for him and his agenda; a slimmer victory would favor traditional voting patterns and Democrats, he said.

“My first job in November’s election is to get re-elected,” Christie said. “So I’m not going to take my eye off that ball. I, as I always have been as governor, will try to be helpful to my party down-ticket.”

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