Lowering of expectations by GOP has Dems calling foul

This week Gov. Chris Christie reiterated earlier assertions that state Republicans will score a win in next week’s legislative mid-terms should they simply maintain the status quo.

Picking up any seats would be a home run Christie and the state GOP have said, citing several decades of both state and national data that show mid terms have not been kind to sitting presidents and governors.

The governor and the state GOP have set the bar so low that no matter what the outcome, Republicans will walk away Tuesday claiming victory.

“If we’re not one of those administrations that loses seats, that even with this awful map that was foisted upon us by the 11th member, then we’ll be making history,” he said.

But in a strange role reversal, Democrats have begun to push back against the GOP drive to lower expectations.   Democratic incumbents are in dog fights in two districts where polling shows only slight margins between the candidates, Democrats say, so how is it the governor claims victory with nothing more than preserving the status quo?

“They have a legitimate shot at picking up a seat in both 38 and 2 and they are working hard in 7, so how is it a victory to win none of them?” one Democrat involved in the election cycle asked.

This week, Christie is up with a television commercial in each of those districts along with 27, which Democrats say is a sign the party thinks it has a chance to pick up some seats. Opponents of the governor say he is trying to have it both ways, lending his name to the races, while at the same time backing away in the event the party loses.

There is no doubt in any politico’s mind that the newly minted legislative map favors incumbents – a fact that means Democrats will inevitably remain in control of the Legislature.  Even a two-seat pickup in the Senate gives Democrats a four-vote advantage, while the GOP needs an additional 18 members in the Assembly to take control.

But as Democrats are quick to point out, if the 2009 governor’s race was run under the new map Christie would win exactly half the districts, down from 22 under the old map.

“If the head of the Republican Party can win 20 districts out of 40, how do they say they have no shot at picking up any seats,” one Democratic source asked.

Indeed, expectations were higher the day the map was adopted than they are now with a week left in the cycle.

In April, when Rutgers Professor Alan Rosenthal cast his vote for the Democratic map, Republicans were disappointed but pragmatic.  The GOP talking points stressed that while they thought Rosenthal erred, the new map was better than the one adopted in 2001.

“We believe we have the better map,” Republican redistricting Chairman Jay Webber said at the time. “But we also believe we have a better map (the final map selected by Rosenthal) than the one we have today. We believe we brought the Democrats to the middle, and that will ultimately give us opportunities.”

Historical perspective

In a memo leaked to members of the press this week, the state GOP pointed out that only one governor – Democrat Jim McGreevey – in recent memory was able to pick up seats during a mid-term election.  Over the last 50 years, the sitting governor’s party has averaged a loss of 10 seats per election (Those averages are heavily skewed by monstrous losses in 1991 during the Florio tax revolt and in 1971 when Gov. William Cahill’s Republicans lost 26 seats.)

“Simply put, despite Governor Christie’s current strong job approval and image ratings, history paints a bleak picture for our Party’s chances to gain ANY legislative seats on Tuesday. In fact, we will buck the odds if we simply maintain our current Republican roster of 16 Senators and 33 Assembly members,” the memo from GOP State chairman Sam Raia said. “Seven of the last eight Governors have lost legislative seats in their first midterm election, and given the tough obstacles currently lined up against our Party, we do not expect this trend to change this year.”

That data was the basis for Christie’s now famous comment that history would be made on Nov. 8. Asked to clarify, Christie said that even maintaining the current number of seats would defy the trend, while picking up seats would make history.

But two of three districts in play with a week left became more heavily Republican as a result of the redistricting process. In District 38, where Sen. Bob Gordon is facing a stiff challenge from Republican John Driscoll, Republican performance in the 2009 governor’s race jumped 4 percentage points. Had that race been run under the new district lines, the district would have been a near toss up, with Corzine winning by less than half a percent. 

As it stood in 2009, Corzine won the district by nearly 5 points.  In District 7, where two Assembly seats are thought to be in play, Christie picked up 5 percentage points under the new map, though Corzine still would have taken the district by 9 points, down from the 18 he won by in 2009.

Christie won District 2 in 2009 by less than half a percent. Under the new district lines, Christie still wins the district but with a slightly smaller margin.

Some Democrats also point to the early buzz about District 14, where Republican Richard Kanka is taking on first-term incumbent Linda Greenstein.  Early handicapping from the GOP had Kanka making a serious run at the seat and Mercer County Republicans touted their candidate’s huge name recognition in predicting the reclamation of the seat that before Greenstein had been held by Republicans since the early 1990s.

But that story line has since died on the vine. While Mercer County Republicans still talk up their candidate’s chances, the state GOP has focused the bulk of its attention and money in Districts 2 and 38.

“After redistricting, the buzz was all about Kanka and how they’d take back the seat,” said another highly placed Democrat.  “What happened to that?  They talked it up and then it died.  Is that still a win?”

The GOP has been so artful in lowering the expectations for the upcoming race that even pundits are mixed on what constitutes a “win” for the GOP.

Monmouth University pollster Patrick Murray agreed with Christie’s assessment that the GOP gets a “W” simply for holding steady.  Picking up two seats is a “big win,” Murray said, and a three-seat gain would be a “tsunami.”

But Montclair State Political Scientist Brigid Harrison has a different take.  If the GOP fails to take LD 38, where Christie’s policies have been fodder for both sides and the governor has expended some political capital, there is no way to claim victory come Election Day.

“I think the claim of victory is disingenuous unless they are able to pick up 38,” Harrison said. “When we look at the campaigns there are only three that are competitive and only in one is the Christie administration the focal point.  I really believe the 38th is probably the iconic race and the bellwether to what might transpire in the future. I don’t think you can say the same about the others.”

Harrison took issue with the story line that maintaining the status quo is a victory, saying too much has been made about Christie’s popularity to back off now.

“To argue that in the wake of Gov. Christie’s “mandate,” his national reputation and all of the fuss that has been made about him and his policies, that maintaining the status quo of the Democratic controlled Legislature is a win is really disingenuous.”

Lowering of expectations by GOP has Dems calling foul