There is little suspense in the 2013 New Jersey gubernatorial race. This would not be news except there is little suspense because a popular, GOP Governor, is the one crushing his Democratic opponent. Chris Christie is riding high in the polls and mere weeks out from the election looks like he will easily hit 60% support.
New Jersey is far from a swing state. The state has not elected a Republican for Senator since 1976. Indeed, the state just had a special election where the GOP candidate was defeated by over 10%. Most analysts expected it to be an even bigger margin for Booker. Moreover, the state has not voted Republican for President since 1988. Since that year the state has trended ever more Democratic at the federal level. This said, it is important to note the Congressional delegation is split 6D/6R and Republicans have functioning minorities in the legislature. Republicans running statewide for non-federal offices have also met with success in the recent past, though always winning with less than 50% of the vote.
Christine Todd Whitman’s election campaign in 1993 shows how this is possible. Whitman ran against incumbent Bill Florio who had raised income taxes during his first term. Whitman’s campaign worked hard on minimizing the Democratic advantage in Essex County and her pledge to lower income taxes helped her carry several swing suburban counties in the center of the state. The result was Whitman winning with 49%. Whitman’s 1997 reelection campaign saw another victory with 47% of the vote (again under 50%). Whitman’s strength was eroded by her challenger in the South-Central of the state but her successful lowering of income taxes likely drove GOP turnout in the traditionally Republican Northwest.
Until Chris Christie Republican performances in subsequent gubernatorial performances were subpar at best. The GOP nominees in 2001 and 2005 only garnered 41% and 43% of the vote respectively. Chris Christie’s 2009 performance showed Republicans could continue to win statewide races but yet again Republicans failed to hit 50%. Christie’s election performance was 48.5% of the vote, the best performance for Republicans in the state since the Whitman. Christie dominated the Northwest of the state and minimized Corzine’s margins in heavily Democratic Essex, Union and Camden counties. Even so, Christie could not hit 50%.
Looking at the 2005 and 2009 maps we can see Christie carried the traditional swing counties in the south of the state. Indeed, his winning margins in some of those counties reflect his overall statewide margin. He built up large margins in the traditionally conservative Monmouth and Ocean county suburbs and perhaps largest of all kept Corzine’s margins in urban Hudson and Essex counties below 60%. In 2005 Corzine easily hit 70% in both.
Despite Republican wins for Governor in past elections the fact their nominees have been unable to hit 50% highlights why the GOP has struggled in federal races. Indeed, George Bush’s 7% loss in the state in 2004 remains the best performance for the party’s Presidential nominee in over two decades. Republicans running for statewide office have been able to cultivate an image unique from the national party’s, largely focused on fiscal issues. County results for prior Presidential elections highlight this distinction.
Clinton’s narrow win in 1992 in the state was based on winning swing, suburban central counties as well as running up margins in traditionally Democratic counties. In 2000, Gore replicated Clinton’s map but instead of winning by 2% he won by over 16%. Even in the good Republican year of 2004, Bush could only manage to win the large coastal counties of Ocean and Monmouth beyond the GOP counties up North. The swing center counties though still went with Kerry, mimicking the statewide result. GOP Presidential nominees performances in 2008 and 2012 have been weak. McCain lost the state by 14% and Romney lost it by an even larger 16% margin last year.
Polls show that Christie is a shoe-in for reelection. His strength is apparent all over the state but he also has the distinct opportunity to carry Essex County, where Democratic registration outnumbers GOP registration by over 6-1. Christie is also outright winning Hispanics in surveys and carrying 30%-40% of the black vote.
Christie has Presidential aspirations and his campaign has made clear he wants to win big. That makes the state party hope his coattails will filter down to legislative races and allow them to take the legislature. Regardless of those results however Democrats concede they have no hope of holding the Governor’s mansion for the next few years. When Democrats concede they have no shot in New Jersey you know they have the blues.