With the entrance of Chris Christie into the Republican gubernatorial primary, the GOP has greatly enhanced its chances of capturing the governor's mansion. While Christie certainly will be a strong candidate, the fact that he faces another prominent Republican in Steve Lonegan means that a significant amount of media attention will be focused on the Republican primary, while the Democratic candidate, in all likelihood the incumbent Governor Corzine, will be attending to state business. Unfortunately, in this economic climate attending to state business means that Governor Corzine will be cutting budgets rather than cutting ribbons.
Conventional wisdom generally holds that a any primary pitting the state's two most recognizable candidates against one another is a recipe for disaster, especially when facing a well-financed incumbent. However, I believe conventional wisdom is wrong in this case. In an off-year election cycle like New Jersey's, the media's attention will be focused on the gubernatorial primary, especially the "horse-race" elements, and will provide the candidates in the primary an unprecedented degree of media coverage. The result will be a significant boost in their name recognition among voters.
This was the situation that Democrats faced in 1997 when Jim McGreevey, Mike Murphy and Rob Andrews squared off against one another. Christie Whitman, the incumbent, waited in the wings and received little attention. (Governors performing their normal duties are usually not very newsworthy.) The Democratic race that year was the big news story, and it received the lion's share of media attention. As a result, the event winner of the primary, Jim McGreevey, nearly pulled off an upset against Whitman.
In addition to receiving the normal amount of coverage that a gubernatorial election merits, both the New Jersey and Virginia gubernatorial contests will take on added meaning because they will serve as a referendum on President Obama's first year in office. This means the race will also receive national media attention, further enhancing the name recognition of the Republican nominee.
Some will argue that the Republicans will waste precious resources combating one another in a primary, and in fact there may be an effort to force one of the candidates to withdraw from the race. I believe such an effort is shortsighted. Republicans can gain more by having a center stage to themselves. In such a contest, the GOP candidates will undoubtedly criticize and attack the administration and must resist the temptation to bloody one another.
Additionally, conducting a statewide primary will prime the eventual winner for the general election. A contested election will provide the Republicans with the experience of a statewide campaign and the opportunity to meet the challenges that are associated with it. Gov. Corzine on the other hand will be four years removed from a contested election, one in which he easily defeated his Republican challenger.
Will a contested primary and the attendant advantages be enough for a Republican victory? Perhaps, but the two factors the GOP nominee will need to overcome are an incumbent with deep pockets, who will undoubtedly have an overwhelming financial advantage and the state's demographics, which have increasingly supported Democratic candidates.
The wildcard in this will be the state of the economy. If New Jersey does not rebound by the November election, then all incumbents will be in trouble.