In Wake of Dems’ Assembly Wins, Questions About Next Two Years for Gov. Christie

It’s more than a matter of arithmetic; pundits and political operatives say Republican defeat is a repudiation of governor and some of his policies

Gov. Chris Christie
The four-seat pickup that New Jersey Democrats are taking away from this week’s state Assembly contest bring the party closer to a veto-proof majority in the lower chamber. They also have raised the question as to this turn of events will affect Gov. Chris Christie’s last two years in office. Can Christie continue to maintain his grip on GOP lawmakers, particularly since the Republican loss is seen as a repudiation of the governor by political operatives on both sides of the aisle.

A total of 54 votes are needed in the 80-member Assembly to override a gubernatorial veto, and by adding four more seats to an already wide margin, Democrats will be just two shy of the 54-seat threshold when the Assembly reconvenes in early January.

But even without the four new seats, there will be immediate pressure on Republican lawmakers in just a few weeks: Democrats are planning to force an override vote on Christie’s veto of a previously unanimous approval of a small change to the gun laws. This legislation, which had been requested by the state courts, would require mandatory notification of New Jersey law enforcement officials when someone with a history of being committed to a mental-health institution seeks to have his or her record erased for the purposes of buying a gun. Assembly Democratic leaders say they will to speak with reporters this afternoon in the State House following a morning caucus, the first to be held since Tuesday’s election.

And with all 120 seats in the Legislature up for grabs in 2017, along with the governor’s office, this week’s Republican losses set the stage for possible GOP defections over the next two years as lawmakers from both parties wrestle with difficult issues like funding for state transportation projects and the fate of New Jersey’s public-employee pension system.

With Christie’s popularity sagging in New Jersey this year, Democrats were confident as the election unfolded Tuesday — the first time in 16 years that Assembly contests led statewide ballots — that they had picked up three seats after weeks of hard campaigning in several key districts. But it took until the early morning hours yesterday for them to declare the gain of a fourth seat, in District 16 in Central Jersey.

Counts of provisional ballots that were held later yesterday built upon what was a just 29-vote election-night lead for apparent winner Andrew Zwicker, a Democrat from South Brunswick.

“We’re highly confident that we’ll be able to withstand any challenge,” Derek Roseman, a spokesman for the Assembly Democratic campaign effort, said yesterday.

Zwicker’s apparent ousting of incumbent Assemblywoman Donna Simon (R-Hunterdon) followed upsets by Democrats in the 11th District, where incumbent Republican Assemblywomen Mary Pat Angelini and Caroline Casagrande lost to Democratic challengers Joann Downey and Eric Houghtaling.

The Democrats, meanwhile, also picked up a seat in the split 1st District in South Jersey, where challenger Bruce Land beat incumbent Assemblyman Sam Fiocchi (R-Cumberland), with incumbent Assemblyman Bob Andrzejczak (D-Cape May) also prevailing.

But the Republicans were able to successfully hold off a strong challenge in the split 2nd District in South Jersey, with incumbent Assemblyman Chris A. Brown (R-Atlantic) and fellow incumbent Assemblyman Vince Mazzeo (D-Atlantic) both holding onto their seats.

Brown could become a key figure as Assembly leaders now prepare for an expected early December vote to override Christie on the mental-health gun legislation.

Lawmakers in both houses unanimously approved that measure in votes held earlier this year, only to see Christie — who has taken a sharp turn to the right as a candidate for the GOP’s 2016 presidential nomination — issue a conditional veto calling for more comprehensive changes on mental-health concerns.

With the help of three Republicans, the Senate voted 27-12 last month in favor of overriding Christie’s veto, the first time either house of the Legislature had bucked the governor since he took office in early 2010. Democrats in the current Assembly will need six Republicans to vote with them for a successful override, and Brown has already signaled he will join with the Democrats.

But even if the override fails in the next few weeks of lame-duck voting, it is almost guaranteed to prevail in the next session when the Democrats will see their ranks increase thanks to this week’s election results.

Patrick Murray, the director of Monmouth University’s Polling Institute, said the Democratic gains should send a message to Republican lawmakers that it’s no longer smart to back their governor at all costs.

“Blindly following Chris Christie is only going to lead to your own destruction,” Murray bluntly warned.

“Christie has significantly tarnished the Republican brand in New Jersey,” Murray said. “That is the big problem.”

But the damage is not just about image, he said. The state GOP was widely outspent this year by Democrats thanks to help from the New Jersey Education Association and an outside expenditure groups with close ties to unions. Republicans, however, had less funds available to combat the Democrats’ spending binge after needing to hire lawyers in the wake of the Christie administration’s George Washington Bridge lane-closure scandal.

“The Republicans should have had more money available to them,” Murray said.

Assembly Republican Leader Jon Bramnick (R-Union), who previously complained about the amount of spending by Democrats on this year’s Assembly elections, did not respond to a phone call seeking his comments yesterday. Christie’s office also did not respond to a request for comment on what the election results could mean for his agenda in New Jersey.

But Senate President Stephen Sweeney, who many expect to run for governor in 2017 as Christie’s second term comes to an end, directly linked the upsets in District 11 and District 16 to the Senate’s override vote on the mental-health gun bill.

“New Jersey voters sent Republican legislators a clear message that it is time to focus on New Jersey’s needs and not on protecting the governor’s right flank for his presidential ambitions,” said Sweeney (D-Gloucester).