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Election 2011: A Referendum on Chris Christie?

Gov. Christie isn't on the ballot, but the lawmakers who helped him achieve his agenda are.

On election night two years ago, Gov. Chris Christie told a roomful of supporters delirious with victory that he intended to "pick Trenton up and … turn it upside down."

His bevy of backers roared approval.

In the past 20 months, Christie has been working with relish to make good on that pledge. He's slashed spending beyond what anybody expected him to. He's imposed a cap on municipal spending that he hopes will rein in future tax increases. He's forced people all over the state to accept less from Trenton and take more out of their pockets. Classrooms are more crowded, and funding for education has shriveled from previous years. He has taken on the public unions, pushed for more charter schools, and cut public health funding. His state transportation plan relied on canceling a tunnel to New York that was to be paid primarily through regional and federal funds.

On November 8, voters will get their first chance to tell Christie what they think so far of his goal to turn Trenton upside down. Christie is not on the ballot, but the lawmakers who helped him achieve his goals are. All 120 seats in the legislature are on the line.

Elections are much more complicated than simply choosing one candidate over another, and this one is no exception. Besides Christie's policies, a mix of things will determine the outcome, including a new legislative district map, money, the involvement of organized labor, and voter apathy.

The Florio Factor

The last time New Jerseyans faced an election like this was 1991, when voters got their first chance to register opinions about another governor who went to Trenton and turned the capital on its head.

That governor was Jim Florio, who in his first six months overhauled the auto insurance laws, revamped the school aid formula, and increased just about every tax available. People took to the streets in protest and voters bull-rushed Democrats out of Trenton. That year 35 of the 66 Democrats in the legislature were sent packing.

While voter reaction is not expected to be as dramatic this year, several incumbents are facing tough fights in their bids to return to Trenton. Democrats hold 24 of the 40 Senate seats and 47 of the 80 in the Assembly.

Patrick Murray, a political scientist at Monmouth University and director of its poll, says 2011 will not see a repeat of 1991 for a number of reasons. He noted that in 1991 mobs of furious voters searched for somebody to blame and settled on Florio and the Democrats.

But there are differences this year, significant ones. Unlike Christie, Florio never laid the groundwork for the tax increases.

"Florio did not convince people there was a fiscal problem. He raised taxes to tackle a problem that people weren't convinced even existed," Murray says. "This time people knew there was a problem. In fact they elected him [Christie] to do something about it."

Besides, Christie enlisted Democrats to help him carry out his plan. So it's not possible to blame just one party.

Redrawing the Map

The redrawing of legislative district lines is guaranteed to produce some turnover. All 269 candidates are running under a new legislative district map that shifted towns around, making some districts more Republican and others more Democratic. Several incumbents have chosen to retire rather than run in a new, less friendly, district. The redistricting map was approved last April after Democrats and Republicans submitted proposals. Each party produced a layout that favored its candidates.

Alan Rosenthal, a Rutgers professor and nationally known expert on state legislatures, was the tiebreaker on the 11-member committee. He went with the Democratic map… At the time he said he believed the map gave "the minority party a chance of winning control of the legislature, even in what is essentially a Democratic state."

The backdrop for all races is, of course, what has gone on in Trenton since that night when Christie vowed to turn the town upside down.

The governor won't be on the ballot but his policies will feed the campaign with issues. The Republicans are happy to endorse the Christie agenda, projecting him as a straight-talking governor who is willing to tackle the state's big problems. Democrats will paint the governor as mean-spirited, vetoing scores of worthwhile programs for the less fortunate and axing hundreds of millions of dollars from schools and other state aid programs. Without a Democratic state legislature, they will say, the public would not be protected from Christie's more extreme positions.

The Union Conundrum

Money won't be a problem for the Republicans -- the party that holds the governor's office traditionally does quite well in fundraising during state elections. Democrats may face a bigger problem, since in past years they could count on unions to write some big checks. But maybe not this year. As of June 30, the Democratic State Committee reported having just $82,408 on hand, according to its July 15 quarterly report filed with the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission. The Republican state party had a little more than $1 million on hand. Those do not include the funds held by the county committees and individual candidates.

Organized labor usually plays a very active role, but this time the unions are in an unfamiliar spot. They're furious with many lawmakers -- Democrats in particular -- for approving changes to pension and health benefits. They have vowed to get even.

The question is: How? If they work against Democrats, they would be helping the Republicans who never have been friends of organized labor. If the unions sit the election out, they will also be helping Republicans.

This year the unions have endorsed only 66 candidates. Neither Senate President Stephen Sweeney,(D-Gloucester) nor Assembly Speaker Shelia Oliver, (D-Essex) won union backing. In some districts, such as the 2nd, not one candidate received union support. As the campaign begins in earnest, Democrats and Republicans are getting serious about where they have a chance of gaining a seat. The race will be closer in some districts than others.

At the Races

In the 2nd district, which includes Atlantic City and surrounding towns, Jim Whelan, the incumbent Democratic senator, faces a stiff challenge from Republican Assemblyman Vince Polistina.

Redistricting and a shift in political leanings by voters in Bergen County have Democratic Sen. Bob Gordon struggling to hold on to his 38th District seat in a fight against Bergen County Freeholder John Driscoll Jr. In the 7th district, comprising Burlington County towns, Democrats are fighting to hold on to the two Assembly seats. Republican Sen. Diane Allen is expected to have little trouble getting re-elected and could pull her two Assembly running mates in with her.

The 14th District Senate race, which has Democratic Sen. Linda Greenstein going toe to toe with Richard Kanka, holds the promise of being a good one for a few reasons. The district includes towns in Mercer and Middlesex counties and is home to thousands of government workers. The unions are expected to give everything they've got for Greenstein, who voted against the pension and health benefit changes pushed by Christie and approved by the legislature.

Off-year elections -- those not held when a presidential or gubernatorial race tops the ticket -- are lackluster affairs. Voters just don't make the connection between the importance of legislative elections and their lives, even though the link should be obvious. A governor can propose but he can't enact changes without the legislators' say so.

Getting voters to pay even a little bit of attention, however, is tough. Turnout is usually dismal. In 2007, the last time the full legislature was up for election, just 32 percent of registered voters turned out. That low number only magnifies the voices of those who do show up.

In order to help voters sort out the issues and the races, NJ Spotlight is launching a 2011 Voter Guide, an interactive tool that lets you gauge a candidate's public service record and assess where he or she stands on key issues. The NJ Spotlight 2011 Voter Guide also enables you to create your own ballot, so you'll be all set on Election Day.

Josh McMahon has covered New Jersey issues for more than three decades. He reported on the New Jersey Supreme Court, was a bureau chief of the Star-Ledger's Trenton bureau, the political editor of the state's largest newspaper, and served on the paper's editorial board, overseeing the op-ed pages of the paper

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