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Opinion: What Happened to Long Coattails in Gubernatorial Elections?

Tom Kean's decisive 1985 win profoundly changed the makeup of the state Legislature, while Christie's landslide has left it nearly untouched

Dick Zimmer

To a legislator, the difference between being in the majority and being in the minority is as consequential as the difference between being in office and being out of office. That is why my political life was transformed in November 1985 when, as a result of Gov. Tom Kean’s reelection landslide, I metamorphosed from an inconsequential Assembly backbencher to the chairman of a powerful legislative committee.

In 1985 Tom Kean’s coattails resulted in the Republican membership of the 80-member New Jersey Assembly spiking from 36 to 50. (Regrettably for us Republicans, the Senate wasn’t running for reelection that year, so the Democrats retained their majority in the upper house through 1991).

We had expected some pickups in marginal districts, but no one had predicted a rout so sweeping that four of Hudson County’s six Assemblymen would be Republicans.

What I learned from that election is that coattails aren’t just the result of a popular leader convincing voters to support his or her running mates. The most powerful coattail effects are caused by actually changing the composition of the electorate.

When the candidate at the top of the ticket catches fire, members of that candidate’s party are invigorated. They work harder for the whole ticket and come out to vote for it in higher numbers. Conversely, the losing candidate’s party members become disheartened. They don’t want to labor on behalf of a lost cause and are more likely to stay home on Election Day.

We saw some of this on Tuesday but not enough to move the needle significantly in the Legislature. Here are some reasons why:

Had Christie won by 40 percentage points as Kean did, Republicans would surely have picked up at least a couple of state Senate seats and a few more seats in the Assembly. Even though Christie won in a bona fide landslide, Governor Kean’s margin was nearly twice as big.

Our legislative districts are hopelessly gerrymandered to produce Democratic majorities regardless of the overall will of the voters.

Since 2001, legislative redistricting plans have packed Republican voters into relatively few districts. As a result, Republican candidates have repeatedly won a majority of the total legislative vote but have been elected to a minority of the seats in the Legislature. That happened again on Tuesday.

MSNBC considers it a scandal that Republicans won most of the seats in the U.S. House of Representatives last year, even though Democrats won a narrow majority of the overall vote. I’m waiting patiently for Rachel Maddow to challenge the legitimacy of New Jersey’s Democratic legislative majorities.

Incumbent legislators are becoming more entrenched.

Gerrymandering aside, incumbent New Jersey legislators of both parties are benefiting from the kind of advantages that makes members of Congress nearly invincible, including competent staff to provide year-round assistance with casework and publicity, as well as an advantage over challengers in fundraising and independent expenditures. The decline of newspapers means that most of what constituents know about their legislators comes from the legislators themselves.

Democrats diverted their resources from state Senator Barbara Buono’s campaign for governor, allowing them to vastly outspend Republicans in legislative races.

By giving up early on Buono, Democratic powerbrokers had plenty of time to lavishly fund their leadership PACS, super PACs, and other “independent “ expenditure organizations with money that would have otherwise gone to the gubernatorial campaign. The result was a gross mismatch in spending in favor of Democratic legislative candidates.

Targeted Democratic legislators ran as part of the Christie team.

In his book "The Politics of Inclusion," Kean recounts how he ignored his 1985 gubernatorial opponent and instead ran against the obstructionist Democratic Assembly Speaker, Alan Karcher. He spent the last 30 days of the campaign in swing legislative districts and diverted $1 million from his own campaign to those races. (That was a lot of money back then.)

In contrast, one of Christie’s strongest campaign themes was his ability to work with Democrats to produce practical results. This in turn allowed vulnerable Democratic legislators to portray themselves as bipartisan problem solvers who know how to work with the governor. Because the voters see partisanship as being much more toxic now than they did in 1985, the benefits of bipartisanship are that much greater for members of both parties who can convincingly lay claim to it.

Some of these factors are one-off events unique to this year’s election. Others represent long-term structural changes in New Jersey politics. It would be a mistake to say we’ll never see long coattails again in gubernatorial elections. But it will be harder to pull off an across-the-board sweep than it was in the past.

Dick Zimmer served in the NJ State Assembly and Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives. He was twice the nominee of the NJ Republican Party for the U.S. Senate.

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