While Barack Obama assembles his cabinet and works on other transition issues, New Jersey already is thinking about another election – the state’s 2009 campaign for Governor.
On the Democratic side, there is little drama. Unless he is offered a cabinet post in the Obama Administration, incumbent Jon Corzine in all likelihood will be on the ballot seeking his second term.
For Republicans, several party members have expressed interest in the Governor’s Office, but U.S. Attorney Chris Christie is regarded as the GOP’s leading candidate. It is easy to see why. As U.S. Attorney, Christie has built a strong reputation cracking down on public corruption, successfully prosecuting some of the most the state’s most powerful political leaders.
All things considered, however, Christie may be better off if he sits out the 2009 race and sets his sites on 2013 instead. Here’s why.
At the moment, New Jersey Democrats are flexing their muscle. Barack Obama carried the state by a comfortable margin on Tuesday and Frank Lautenberg cruised to re-election in the U.S. Senate. Democrats also gained control of a Congressional seat that has been in GOP hands since 1882. And don’t forget that in addition to having a Democrat in the Governor’s Office, the party also holds majorities in both houses of the State Legislature. Add an Obama presidency into the mix and it may not be the most opportune time for a Republican challenger, especially if the Democratic president’s favorability numbers are still riding high next year. Only New Jersey and Virginia will be holding gubernatorial elections next year, so it is conceivable that Obama could come into the Garden State to boost the Democrat cause.
Secondly, at the present time Christie is a one issue candidate and that issue – corruption – seldom resonates with New Jersey voters. It did not work for Tom Kean Jr. when he ran for U.S. Senate two years ago, and Doug Forrester’s attempts to paint Corzine as a candidate created by political bosses failed to take hold in the 2005 gubernatorial campaign. This year, Republicans were unable to win any freeholder seats in Bergen County even though two of the county’s most powerful Democratic leaders were under indictment. Likewise, campaign ads raising questions about John Adler’s connection to a controversial state grant program failed to keep victory out of his hands on Tuesday.
So what does Chris Christie do for the next few years? He should take a lesson from two former Governors.
After Jim Florio lost the 1981 Governor’s election by the narrowest margin in state history, he was considered the frontrunner for the 1985 contest. But with incumbent Governor Tom Kean enjoying great popularity with the New Jersey citizenry, Florio sat out the race and chose instead to run in 1989 when there would be no incumbent on the gubernatorial ballot. The decision proved to be the correct one. He was elected Governor in 1989 with 61 percent of the vote.
There also is a lesson to be learned from Christine Todd Whitman. After she almost upset Bill Bradley in the 1990 U.S. Senate campaign, she used her time wisely to build support for her successful run for Governor in 1993. Hosting a radio talk show (as Whitman did) may not be in the U.S. Attorney’s future, but there are plenty of ways he could make good use of the time between gubernatorial elections.
With a Democratic Administration about to take hold in Washington, D.C., Christie’s days as U.S. attorney are numbered. He can return to private practice with a law firm that will give him the time he needs to sow the seeds for a run in 2013. In the interim, he plays the good soldier in the 2009 gubernatorial race, raising money, delivering surrogate speeches and building goodwill for the GOP standard bearer.
If Corzine wins the election, Christie then has four full years to wage his campaign for Governor. During this time, he can expand his platform beyond the single issue of corruption. He can become a vocal and visible critic of the Democratic Administration, using the populist appeal that has served him well as U.S. Attorney. He can travel around New Jersey and build a stronger statewide identity by speaking at Kiwanis Club luncheons, VFW meetings, county fairs and the like.
From a strategic standpoint, Christie would be at an advantage by not holding a public office where he would be forced to vote on controversial issues. Instead, his public record would be his long list of successful prosecutions as U.S. Attorney. And he gets a few more years to put some distance between a run for Governor and the most serious controversy of his career – the $52 million contract awarded to former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft’s company to monitor t a criminal settlement.
The big question, however, is whether Christie has the patience to wait until 2013. Politics is a world in which people want things now. But Chris Christie has experience at being patient. Among his hobbies and interests outside the office, he is a fan of New York Mets, a team whose last few seasons have tried the patience of even its most ardent followers.
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