As he campaigns for the Republican nomination for president, Gov. Chris Christie is quick to tell audiences that he was elected and re-elected in a solidly Democratic state and that his successes are proof of his ability to appeal across party and demographic lines.
“We were running in a state that didn’t elect Republicans,” he told a New Hampshire crowd recently.
Well, not quite.
Of the eight governors elected since 1969, four were Republicans: Bill Cahill, Tom Kean, Christie Whitman, and Christie. Four were Democrats: Brendan Byrne, Jim Florio, Jim McGreevey, and Jon Corzine.
Three of the four Republicans -- Kean, Whitman, and Christie -- won re-election (Cahill lost a primary contest), while Byrne was the only Democrat to secure a second term. Florio and Corzine were defeated after one term and McGreevey resigned midway through his first term.
In terms of numbers, it appears to be a draw, but in terms of reelection success, Republicans clearly hold an edge.
Of the 48 that will have elapsed between the outset of Cahill’s first term in 1970 and the end of Christie’s second term in 2018, Republicans will have occupied the governor’s office for 28 of them, just under 60 percent.
Democratic dominance of U.S. Senate contests is virtually total, however. New Jersey last sent a Republican to the Senate in 1972, and the party has endured an unbroken string of defeats since.
In terms of presidential elections, it’s been a partisan draw since 1968. Republican candidates carried the state in the six elections from 1968 to 1988 (Nixon twice, Ford once, Reagan twice, and Bush 41 once), while Democrats have pitched a shutout in the six elections from 1992 through 2012 (Clinton twice, Gore and Kerry once each, and Obama twice).
Christie’s characterization of the state as Democratic as measured by voter registration is accurate, but it is also one in which unaffiliated voters -- those who eschew partisan registration -- outnumber party registrants combined. This independent bloc has been and continues to be the key to statewide success, the reason both Republican and Democratic candidates strive to avoid being pulled to the more extreme elements of their respective party bases. Maintaining touch with the generally centrist nonaligned voters while not offending the more hardcore partisan wings can be delicate and challenging, but critical to success.
Christie defeated the unpopular Corzine in 2009 by some 87,000 votes, even though the Democratic Party leadership offered lukewarm support to the incumbent.
In 2013, the Democratic candidate, state Sen. Barbara Buono (Middlesex) failed to raise sufficient campaign cash to qualify for full matching funds, and was largely abandoned by her party establishment, many of whom cut side deals to support Christie.
Christie’s victories are not to be diminished, but neither are they an aberration. He did, in fact, defeat an incumbent governor -- only the second time in history that has occurred (Florio was the first) -- while the Buono campaign was doomed from the start, hamstrung by a lack of money and cast adrift by self-serving party leaders.
The reason for the Republican successes in gubernatorial elections and their dismal record in Senate elections is explained simply: While candidate quality plays an obvious role, voters perceive and understand the crucial difference that exists between the two offices.
The governor, as the only state official elected at large, is viewed almost as a local representative, whose daily task is to solve all manner of problems and address myriad issues which directly impact everyday life.
U. S. senators, on the other hand, are somewhat remote, removed from the day-in-and-day-out immediacy of taxes, traffic congestion, environmental pollution, economic growth, job creation, healthcare, public education, and law enforcement. The Senate comprises 100 men and women who give speeches and deal with issues that never seem to get resolved.
A governor is accessible, a constant presence in the media as the go-to hands-on chief executive with Caesar-like powers who can move quickly and effectively when crises arise. Every problem -- great or small, overwhelming or trivial -- ultimately finds its way to the governor’s doorstep amid public anticipation they will be resolved satisfactorily.
Consequently, choosing a governor is a process infinitely closer to voters and their self-interest, who base decisions on who they feel is the person capable of acting decisively on issues most troubling to them.
For instance, the acknowledged high point of Christie’s nearly six years in office came in 2012 in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, the once-in-a-century storm that laid waste to a huge swath of the state and whose effects are still being felt today. His constant presence not only comforted victims but made clear he was in charge and directing the resources of the state toward restoring shattered lives and property.
Compare those heady days with a recent poll in which 75 percent of respondents felt he is ignoring New Jersey’s problems while pursuing his national ambitions. His standing in polls among New Jerseyans and nationally have taken a serious hit as well.
So when candidate Christie boasts to out-of-state audiences that he is a Republican elected twice in a Democratic state, he’s being truthful.
The history of gubernatorial elections, though, reveals a state that is more robin’s egg blue than midnight blue and pastel pink rather than fire engine red.