In the June, 2005 primary election, New Jersey Republicans selected as their candidate for governor Douglas Forrester, a nominee who, on the abortion issue, was an outspoken pro-choice advocate, opposed school vouchers, and refused to support President George W. Bush’s appointment of strict constructionist Justice Samuel Alito to the United States Supreme Court. Four years later, on Tuesday, June 2, 2009, barring a totally unforeseen event, New Jersey Republicans will nominate astheir gubernatorial candidate Chris Christie, anominee who opposes abortion, favors school vouchers, and advocates the appointment of conservative strict constructionist jurists to the federal and New Jersey courts.
The message of this primary election will be clear. Douglas Forrester was a moderate, and Chris Christie is definitely a candidate of the center-right. With Christie’s primary victory, the New Jersey GOP will have decisively defined itself as a party of the center-right.
This bodes very well for a Republican gubernatorial victory this November. Indeed, New Jersey, like most of America, has a center-right electorate, and Chris Christie has positioned himself very well for the November election.
To put this in perspective, it is no longer accurate to speak of a New Jersey Republican Party that has two branches, moderate and conservative. Instead, the New Jersey GOP has three ideological branches: 1) Moderate; 2) Center-Right; and 3) Paleoconservatives – or "paleocons" for short.
The moderates are a truly declining section of the New Jersey GOP. Their major issues are advocacy of abortion rights andgun control, and on fiscal issues, they are flexible. On judicial appointments, they are primarily concerned with the orientation of the possible appointee on the abortion issue rather than whether he or she is a strict constructionist who focuses on interpreting the law rather than legislating from the bench. In terms of national figures, New Jersey GOP moderates most identify with the Republican Senators from Maine, Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe.
New Jersey center-right Republicans are most hawkish on fiscal matters, namely, cutting taxes and spending. They also strongly emphasize that judicial appointees must be strict constructionists. On education issues, Republicans of the center-right advocate vouchers and charter schools. They are, for the most part, strong pro-life and pro-Second Amendment (right to bear arms) advocates. These social issues are not litmus tests for them, however, in that center-right Republicans are quite willing to support the election of a Republican moderate as long as he or she embraces the Republican center-right position on fiscal matters and court appointments. The national heroes of New Jersey center-right Republicans are Ronald Reagan and Jack Kemp.
For the paleocons, anti-abortion and pro-guns are litmus test issues, and they therefore will in many cases refuse to support a pro-choice or pro-gun control Republican nominee. On immigration, they are absolutely inflexible to the point of being xenophobic. At the national level, on foreign policy, they have a strong tendency towards isolationism. In terms of prominent national figures, they identify with Ron Paul and Pat Buchanan.
Chris Christie is the quintessential New Jersey center-right Republican, while Steve Lonegan has been the avatar of New Jersey Republican paleoconservatism. With the anticipated primary election victory of Christie, the New Jersey GOP will not only be selecting a gubernatorial candidate but also mandating a policy course for the party, rejecting both the moderate course which failed with Douglas Forrester in 2005 and the paleo-conservative alternative of Steve Lonegan, which has never succeeded in any New Jersey statewide election.
With a center-right mandate, Chris Christie will be in a very strong position to broaden the Republican coalition to recapture the Reagan Democrats whose support made possible the victories in New Jersey of Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984, George H.W. Bush in 1988, and Tom Kean in 1981 and 1985. He also will have a strong basis on which to appeal to minority voters as well.
I would hope also that the Republican nomination of center-right Chris Christie would give rise to a healthy policy debate with Democrat center-left Governor Jon Corzine. Unfortunately, Corzine is already proving to be disappointing in this regard. He has condoned the Democrat 527 Mid Atlantic Leadership Fund commercial, which is a thoroughly scurrilous and defamatory ad hominem smear against Christie’s character. If Corzine chooses to make this election a personal mud bath rather than a healthy debate on issues, the electorate will be the loser.
The Governor should keep one other political axiom in mind: In politics, as in other areas of life, that which does not kill you will make you stronger. The Mid Atlantic Leadership Fund commercial will not sway the Republican primary in the direction of Steve Lonegan, and whatever negative effect the commercial has will vanish within a few weeks after the primary. Chris Christie will have survived an attempt of both Democrats and paleocon Republicans to defame him, and he could emerge stronger than ever. With a center-right mandate and with a more energized army of Republican mainstream volunteers than I have seen in many years, he is indeed the best hope the New Jersey GOP has had for a statewide victory in this decade.
Alan J. Steinberg served as Regional Administrator of Region 2 EPA during the administration of former President George W. Bush. Region 2 EPA consists of the states of New York and New Jersey, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and seven federally recognized Indian nations.