Christie and the 2011 Legislative Races

Governor Chris Christie has begun 2011, from a political standpoint, most auspiciously.  Given the boldness of his 2010 agenda and the Democratic leanings of the New Jersey body politic, he fared remarkably well this week in the two reported polls of his job performance, namely 1) Fairleigh Dickinson University’s PublicMind and 2) Public Policy Polling.

 

His State-of-the-State message was both cogent in content and well-delivered in style.  The Governor appeared to be most effective in reassuring the electorate that his agenda will place New Jersey on the right track towards better affordability for its citizenry, solvency for its state government and its pension system, an improved economy, and a reformed education system.

 

Obviously, the major political priority for the Governor will be the election of more Republican Assembly members and Senators in 2011.  This is as it should be.  If Governor Christie is able to achieve a Republican majority in either legislative house, this would certainly facilitate passage of his budgetary, pension, and education reform initiatives.

 

Before the legislative districts are determined by the Reapportionment Commission, it is virtually impossible to predict with any logic the outcome of these elections.  Once the district lines have been drawn, it will still be difficult to predict the outcome of the more competitive districts until late October.  Local issue factors, the quality of the candidates, and the size of respective campaign financial war chests play as prominent a role as do statewide issues.

 

There is one other factor that should be kept in mind:  The off-year legislative elections are not necessarily a referendum on the incumbent governor’s job performance.  I have heard leading Republicans speak of making the 2011 legislative elections a referendum on the policies and performance of Governor Chris Christie.  Actually, that places an unfair burden on him.

 

Except in the case of Campaign 1991, where the election of veto-proof Republican majorities in the Assembly and Senate definitely constituted public repudiation of the tax increases of Governor Jim Florio, the record of the incumbent Governor has often been an insignificant factor in the off-year legislative election results.

 

Both Tom Kean and Christie Whitman were highly popular Republican governors at the time of their first term off-year elections, 1983 and 1995 respectively.  In fact, in the 1983 elections, the Republicans ran a statewide television commercial of the highly popular Kean asking the voters to elect Republican legislators.  Yet in both 1983 and 1995, the Republicans actually incurred net losses of legislative seats (although in 1995, only the Assembly races were up for election statewide).

 

By contrast, in 2003, Jim McGreevey was an unpopular Democratic Governor, whose administration was being endangered by the lengthening shadows of scandal.  Yet the Democrats actually gained seats in both the Assembly and Senate.  The Democrats also made gains in the 2007 elections in both the Assembly and Senate, in spite of the declining popularity of the then incumbent governor, Jon Corzine.

 

Certainly, there is no doubt that Christie will be a significant asset for Republican Senate and Assembly candidates throughout the state.  He is a superb campaigner, as he demonstrated nationally in 2010, and he doubtless will be of significant value in fundraising.  Nobody can motivate a turnout of the Republican base better than he.

 

In a sense, Christie may have a “win-win” situation in 2011.  In this “blue” state, if the Democrats do retain control of the Senate and Assembly, history tells us that it would be most unfair to read that as a negative mandate on the policies and performance of Governor Christie.   Yet if the GOP does capture control of one or both legislative houses, it would have to be due to his popularity if he continues to maintain good job approval numbers in November.  So while Christie would not be responsible for GOP legislative losses, he could get credited with unusual off-year Republican gains.

 

When the final legislative district boundaries are determined, we will then hear months of predictions and observations from the pundits, myself included.  In New Jersey, both political campaigns and political punditry never have an off-season.

 

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 eight federally recognized Indian nations.  Under former New Jersey Governor Christie Whitman, he served as Executive Director of the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission. He currently serves on the political science faculty of Monmouth University.

Christie and the 2011 Legislative Races