Would early departure by Christie be a parting gift for GOP candidate in 2017?
New Jersey hasn’t elected governors from the same political party in three consecutive elections since 1965. With Gov. Chris Christie’s latest approval ratings at record lows, 2017 would seem like an unlikely time to reverse the trend.
But the playing field could get jumbled.
If President-elect Donald Trump taps Christie for a role in his White House, Cabinet or at the Republican National Committee, it would make Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno New Jersey’s 56th governor. And it would allow her to seek a full term next year as an incumbent.
She’d be better known by the electorate and, hopefully, create a quick record of accomplishment, said state Sen. Sam Thompson, R-Middlesex.
“I think that actually it will probably improve our chances, quite frankly,” Thompson said.
“Christie did a great job here during his first term in office and so on, and a lot of things have been on his mind right now, and they will continue to be on his mind as we’re going into the new year,” Thompson said. “Kim, on the other hand, she’ll be able to focus on the problems we’ve got right here. And I think in her first six months, she’ll have a lot of incentive to go out there and deal with a lot of these problems we’re having and get them solved.”
“If she does come in there like that, if she does the job, she gets things solved, well, that will greatly increase our chances of getting a Republican governor elected next year,” Thompson said.
State Sen. James Holzapfel, R-Monmouth, said it would be an asset for Guadagno if she becomes governor, and that she might have a better working relationship with Democratic legislative leaders than Christie does.
But he said he doesn’t know if it would make the 2017 race easier for Republicans, given that voters generally switch parties after two terms.
“It is definitely a blue state that Republicans are able on certain occasions, based on the work performance of the incumbent, to be successful. But I think if you were a betting man today, the trend would be that you would vote that there will be a change,” Holzapfel said.
“They're not happy with what the situation is presently, so I think someone new coming in probably might have a leg up on someone who is holding the incumbent seat,” he said.
It would also reduce the focus on Christie, who is getting his lowest-ever reviews from voters in the latest Rutgers-Eagleton Poll – 19 percent favorability and 20 percent job-approval. Christie wouldn't be on the ballot anyway.
The leading Democratic candidate appears to be Phil Murphy, a former Goldman Sachs executive. Assemblyman John Wisniewski is exploring a bid, and Jim Johnson, a Montclair attorney who worked in the U.S. Treasury Department under President Bill Clinton, is also a declared candidate.
Sen. Kevin O’Toole, R-Essex, said the Republicans have a group of potential candidates for governor, including Guadagno, Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick and Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli.
“I think it’s a real talented field out there,” O’Toole said. “There’s also other folks – I wouldn’t dismiss a Joe Piscopo, who actually I ran into the hall three weeks ago, who’s actually really smart. He’s got some interesting ideas. And there are probably candidates out there that we don’t know yet.”
Stockton University political analyst Carl Golden, who worked in the administrations of Govs. Thomas Kean and Christie Whitman, said Guadagno would benefit greatly in a primary if she spends time serving as governor first.
“Obviously, being the incumbent governor in a primary is going to be a tremendous advantage,” he said. “It gives her access to the money required. It gives her access to the organization that’s necessary to put together a successful primary. So she has a great advantage in that sense.”
State Sen. Michael Doherty, R-Warren, who could be a candidate, said Guadagno would essentially clinch the nomination if she takes office early.
“I think if she’s the sitting governor, it’s probably going to clear the field in a Republican primary,” Doherty said.
The impact for next November’s election isn’t as clear, political analysts said.
“When you get to the general election, the larger picture, it’s obviously a shifting environment where she’s going to have to go out there and convince people that this is not Gov. Christie’s third term, but it’s Gov. Guadagno’s first term,” Golden said. “And that’s going to be a real challenge for her.”
“Even with that, I think she faces a tough hurdle,” said Seton Hall University political scientist Matthew Hale.
State Sen. Joseph Kyrillos, R-Monmouth, who isn’t seeking re-election next year, said it’s impossible to forecast next year’s politics and Christie’s hypothetical early departure.
“I’ve known Kim a long time. If she gets a chance to serve, I know she’ll do it with great dedication and enthusiasm. And things will work out fine," he said. "The politics thereafter, who knows?”
O’Toole, who also isn’t seeking re-election, also cautioned against gaming out next year’s race.
“I think one of the things that we all learned from this election: It’s kind of hard to draw conclusions before the election’s actually occurred,” O’Toole said. “I think that the media has been self-flogging that they [had] preordained Hillary, just like I suspect a lot have preordained Murphy to be the next governor. I think it would serve us well to allow this democracy to play itself out throughout 2017.”
Doherty said Guadagno, or any Republican candidate for governor, should make Christie’s proposed “fairness formula,” which gives more school funding to suburban districts at the expense of urban and impverished districts, the key part of their platform
“I think if the Republicans run on that issue, whoever is running for governor, whoever’s running for Legislature at the local level, I think if we promote that issue, we could actually have some success in 2017,” Doherty said.
On top of that, he said, Guadagno has spoken against the recent hike in the gas tax. Doherty said that could become an election issue if the tax goes up next October, which would happen if sales drop, as the law guarantees the state a steady amount of gas-tax income.
“So you’re going to have the Democrat candidate Murphy supporting that, and you’re going to have the Republican against the gas tax, against the automatic increase, and promoting a better deal on property taxes for the people of New Jersey. So I think we’d have a fighting shot,” he said.