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Democrats and Conservative Republicans Join in Attacking New Jersey’s “Big Boy”

There are a few governors who have managed to keep their approval ratings from turning upside down in this turbulent economy where they’re often forced to make unpopular decisions on raising taxes or cutting services. New Jersey’s governor Jon Corzine is certainly not one of them.

While a new Rasmussen Poll shows that 48% of Jersey voters prefer a generic Democrat and only 34% a generic Republican, Corzine, a Democrat, is trailing Chris Christie, a crusading Republican prosecutor by 9 points – 47% to 38%. Latest Rasmussen NJ governor’s poll. Christie, whose pet nickname from George W. Bush is “Big Boy”, has successfully prosecuted and locked up over 130 corrupt New Jersey Republican and Democratic public officials who were busy privately enriching themselves. Christie’s prosecutorial past. More below the fold, including Democratic commando attacks behind Republican lines.

In many ways Christie personifies the archetype of the profile that a Republican needs to have to win in New Jersey, a state where only 19.7% of the voters are registered Republicans. But he is still anathema to the right wing of the Republican party there. Conservative Republicans support one of their own, Steve Lonegan, who in the same Rasmussen Poll ran only one point ahead of Corzine, 42% to 41%. Lonegan, the 52-year-old former mayor of Bogota, New Jersey and current state director of Americans for Prosperity, a taxpayer advocacy group, finished fourth in the Republican primary in 2005. In a possible echo of national polling numbers that show almost the same number of people believing America’s on the right track as believe we’re on the wrong track for the first time since 2003 (America’s heading in right direction most recent polling.), Corzine’s approval numbers – while still very low — have actually rebounded 7% from the abysmal to the merely dismal. Forty percent of Jersey voters now approve of his job performance. Ordinarily that’s still a fatal number for an incumbent. But Republicans have suffered an Atacama Desert-like drought in terms of winning major elections in New Jersey. Christine Todd Whitman was the last Republican victor in New Jersey for any statewide office, winning the governor’s race in 1997.

Democrats are playing in the Republican primary to at least damage Christie, and in a best case scenario, help Lonegan win, since they perceive him to be a weaker general election candidate. The Democratic Governors Association has created 527s which spent several million dollars on independent expenditures slamming the Republican gubernatorial candidates in Kentucky and Washington state in 2007 & 2008. David Halbfinger of the New York Times reports that they’re engaging in New Jersey and are attacking Christie’s strong suit as a corruption fighter head on. How do you attack somebody for locking up lots of corrupt politicians who are looting the public treasury? You don’t, not exactly. You attack him for facilitating the enrichment of his friends, friends who are not very popular in New Jersey. Christie’s past boss in the Justice Department, former Attorney General John Ashcroft, reaped $28-52 million from a Christie-awarded contract to monitor a company that had been accused of paying kickbacks to doctors. Christie also awarded another contract to David M. Kelley who had decided not to prosecute Chris Christie’s brother, Todd Christie, in a stock fraud case while serving as U.S. Attorney in Manhattan. These contracts are no-bid contracts and are awarded exclusively on the discretion of the U.S. Attorney, i.e. Chris Christie.

Corzine was CEO of Goldman Sachs before becoming governor and has a net worth – even after the recent market reversals – in the hundreds of millions. No matter how much of his ample fortune Corzine spends on his re-election campaign, he’s not going to become suddenly popular in New Jersey. But Corzine still has a shot to win if he can become just popular enough and Christie’s negatives can be driven up significantly by a hard-hitting campaign against him. To live in New Jersey is to open a paper or read on a website about some politician or another being indicted or convicted on a weekly if not daily basis. New Jersey voters are properly cynical about their politicians and all the Democrats have to do – although it’s not a small task – is make New Jersey voters think that Christie is just another sleazy politico. In a choice between a Democrat they don’t like (Corzine) and a Republican they don’t like (Christie, if the Democrats’ campaign is successful), New Jersey voters will pick the Democrat.

Democrats would be even happier if Lonegan were somehow to win the Republican primary. Lonegan’s chances shouldn’t be summarily dismissed. The Rasmussen Poll has Christie ahead of Lonegan by 39%-29%, but that’s not as much as one would expect considering that Christie has been the beneficiary of a steady stream of positive publicity over the past several years and Lonegan is still not well known even to much of the Republican Party primary electorate because his previous statewide candidacy was poorly funded. Christie is better known and has the support of the Republican Party establishment in New Jersey. But Lonegan’s supporters are more motivated and primary electorates are notoriously hard to poll because it’s difficult to gauge who will actually vote. Betting against the distinctly more conservative candidate in Republican Party primaries has been anything but a sure path to riches in recent years, even in New Jersey. It’s certainly safe to say that whether Christie or Lonegan wins the primary on June 2, this race will stay hot through November.

[Since New Jersey redistricts both its U.S. House seats and state legislature by means of bipartisan commissions whose members themselves choose an additional person to serve as a tie-breaking vote, the governor’s race victor in November will have no impact on redistricting.]