I must begin by congratulating the strategists, senior advisors, and management staff of the Christie campaign whom I often vigorously criticized during the campaign. My criticisms were based on my honest judgment and analysis regarding the various trends in the polls and the key policy issues discussed in the campaign. The main thing that matters in politics, however, is the ultimate outcome, and you deserve the credit for the victory of Governor-elect Chris Christie.
Nothing shocked me this past evening more than the Christie victories in Gloucester and Middlesex Counties. These are two counties in different regions of the state that have significant economic and sociological differences. Yet the common denominator is the large presence in each county of working class third generation descendants of central and eastern European immigrants. These individuals are archetypal members of the Reagan Democrats who left their party in 1980 to support Ronald Reagan’s candidacy for the Presidency.
The Reagan Democrats were instrumental also in the victories of Tom Kean for Governor in 1981 and 1985 and the Republican takeover of the New Jersey Assembly and Senate in 1991. They are people who value hard work, patriotism, faith, and family. Their defections from the Democratic Party in all the aforementioned elections were due to their perception that the party of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy, Hubert Humphrey, and Henry “Scoop” Jackson was no longer attentive to their day-to-day concerns.
It is important to note that the Reagan Democrats never became Republicans. Throughout the nation, they continued to vote for Democrat members of the House of Representatives, although they played a key role in the election of a Republican U.S. Senate in 1980. They never repudiated the New Deal safety net programs, such as Social Security and public works programs, and they hardly were economic and social libertarians.
Still, they felt by 1980 that the Democrat administration of Jimmy Carter was following a foreign policy of appeasement and big government domestic policies of economic contraction. They believed in the Reagan policies of a strong defense and tax reduction that resulted in the victory over the former Soviet Union in the Cold War and the longest period of non-inflationary economic growth during the Cold War era.
The Republican Party at the national level began to lose the support of Reagan Democrats when former President George H.W. Bush raised taxes. The ensuing economic recession of 1991-1992 accelerated the return of Reagan Democrats to the Democratic Party. In truth, the Reagan Democrats never returned in significant numbers to the GOP even during the campaigns of George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004.
Yet in New Jersey in this election, we have just witnessed the revival of the Reagan Democrats in Gloucester and Middlesex Counties. There is one key issue that appears to have sparked this revival: the issue of affordability, most notably with regard to state and local property taxes.
Middlesex County has both an urban center in New Brunswick and a suburban life style in places like Metuchen and Edison. Gloucester County does not have an urban center but instead is a mixture of suburbia, small towns, and rural areas.
In both counties, the Reagan Democrats had arrived from large urban centers. They came to Gloucester County from Philadelphia and to Middlesex County from New York, Newark, and Jersey City. They were believers in the American Dream of upward mobility and more living space.
Today, the Reagan Democrats of Gloucester and Middlesex Counties and their offspring see the American Dream in New Jersey threatened by high property taxes, ineffective delivery of governmental services, and diminishing job opportunities. They felt that Jon Corzine was inattentive to their concerns, and they left their strong Democrat roots to support Chris Christie. In the process, in the Fourth Legislative District, the GOP scored a huge upset victory with the capture of a Democrat Assembly seat by Dominick DeCicco.
As for Barack Obama, it would be incorrect to read yesterday’s election result as a repudiation of the President. One fact is clear, however: The Reagan Democrats of Gloucester and Middlesex Counties were not going to vote for a failed Democrat governor simply in response to the entreaties of a President they had voted for during the previous year.
The concerns of the Reagan Democrats of Gloucester and Middlesex Counties are shared by the Independent and Republican voters who elected Chris Christie yesterday. I do not envy the Governor-elect as he attempts to reduce the tax burden on the Reagan Democrats while simultaneously trying to close a structural deficit of eight billion dollars.
Nobody can expect Chris Christie to be a messiah who miraculously solves New Jersey’s problems with a stroke of a pen. He will face the challenge of dealing with a legislature controlled by the opposition party, and public employee and teachers unions who have very different ideas regarding the state budget.
As I have said before, however, even in articles critical of the new Governor, Chris Christie is a moral and ethical man of determination and fortitude. He exceeded all expectations in becoming the greatest U.S. Attorney in modern New Jersey history. As he meets the challenges of the transition and a new administration, the hopes and best wishes of the electorate are with him.
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.