Back in 2003, New Jersey Republicans made the legislative race about holding Jim McGreevey accountable. At the time, McGreevey was suffering from low approval ratings.
But it didn’t work — the GOP wound up losing control of the Senate and losing more seats in the Assembly.
“I think in 2003 the message was a little too simple: ‘send a message to Jim McGreevey,’” said state GOP Chairman Tom Wilson. “I think that was less of a winner than talking about specific issues.”
This year, the Republicans have learned not to make Gov. Jon Corzine himself the main issue of the campaign, especially considering his positive approval ratings. But the three top issues that Republicans have focused on this year are all policies closely tied to the governor: asset monetization, property taxes and ethics reform.
While it goes without saying that the governor would have a lot to do with the issues du jour, Corzine, Republicans say, has failed to fulfill his inaugural promises on those issues. Republicans say that the public can force his hand by electing a Republican majority.
Although details of Corzine’s asset monetization plan have not been released, the hint of selling or leasing the state’s toll roads to private entities has become the top issue of this year’s election cycle. It may have lost some momentum after the corruption busts of 11 public officials earlier this month, still, Democratic legislators, fearful of being tied to the governor on the issue, have scrambled to disavow the plan.
Corzine spokeswoman Lilo Stainton said that monetization had in large part burned out as a campaign issue.
“I don’t think that’s going to be the hot issue anymore. So that in and of itself isn’t as much of a concern,” said Stainton. “I don’t think that’s going to be a downfall for Democrats in general on a wider level.”
Stainton said the Governor could not see property taxes as anything but a winning proposition for the Democrats, and that the Governor had worked hard to fulfill his promises on ethics reform, which Corzine said was his “highest priority” in his inaugural address.
But although Democrats tout passing 20 ethical reform measures over the last six years, they have been subject to criticism by Republicans, who call them “watered down.”
Corzine has also been criticized for not calling on Sharpe James and Wayne Bryant to resign from the state Senate after their arrests, although he did call for the resignations of recently arrested Assemblymen Mims Hackett and Al Steele. Furthermore, his entanglements with Carla Katz’s employment and payments made to her brother-in-law, Rocco Riccio, have put an ethical cloud over Corzine’s head.
“In general, I think that his performance, or lack of performance, has helped us. He set expectations, and then failed to meet them and had willing accomplices in the legislature,” said Wilson.
Although Corzine hasn’t exactly been in demand on the campaign trail, as PoliticsNJ.com reported a few weeks ago, it’s unclear what, if any, effect Corzine will have on legislative races.
Republicans are sounding the theme that, for real reform to take place, the Governor may actually find a better reception for his reforms from a Republican majority. Senate Minority Leader Leonard Lance said that Republicans, for instance, would not have compromised and allowed double dipping elected officials to be grandfathered in with the recently signed dual office holding ban.
“If there were a Republican legislature, these matters would be passed by us and we hope signed by the governor,” said Lance.
But Democratic State Committee Chairman Joseph Cryan thinks that Corzine’s governorship will have a positive effect on the legislative races, pointing to Corzine’s favorable approval ratings.
“No matter what he does, he has a positive impact because he’s the face and the head of the party in the state, and he’s got a 57 percent approval rating,” said Cryan, referring to a summer poll from Quinnipiac University (a new poll today from Farleigh Dickinson put Corzine at 54 percent).
Cryan said that internal polling showed the governor with strong numbers statewide, and that Republicans were “punching ghosts” when campaigning on monetization, since Corzine hasn’t announced the plan.
“I’ll tell you this as a chairman: when the Republicans are running against a proposal that’s not out there and that’s their only issue, then they’re in for a bad year,” said Cryan.
Property tax relief may be the most advantageous issue for the Governor. Although Republicans dismiss it as a “vote bribe,” Corzine has gotten a good share of credit for giving out property tax rebate checks. And even though a structural deficit remains, the issue is not likely to inspire passion in this low turnout election, according to Seton Hall University Political Science Professor Joe Marbach.
Local issues get top billing in legislative races, said Marbach, and Corzine may be wise to stay off the campaign trail and let the redistricting based on the 2000 census, which favors Democrats, do its work. Whatever the Republicans want to do, they’re still facing a tough obstacle, according to Marbach.
“Despite the Republicans’ attempts to make this a referendum on him, I think by laying low he’s been able to avoid that,” said Marbach.