Burning Questions

Can the state GOP find a gubernatorial candidate to rise from Chris Christie’s ashes?

Illustration by John Ueland

These are heady times for the national Republican Party.

With a grip on the presidency, Congress and soon the Supreme Court, Republicans have more political power than they’ve enjoyed since at least 1928, when Herbert Hoover was elected. And it’s not limited to Washington: They also dominate state legislatures by margins not seen since Abraham Lincoln and control the governor’s office in 33 states.

But New Jersey is a different picture—and a particularly gloomy one when it comes to the GOP’s chances in this year’s  gubernatorial election.

For one thing, history is not on the GOP’s side. It’s been more than 50 years since either party occupied the governor’s mansion for more than two consecutive terms. The Republicans haven’t done that since 1947, when Alfred E. Driscoll succeeded Wally Edge.

Then there’s the undeniable fact that New Jersey is a blue state and getting bluer every day, with minorities accounting for 47 percent of the population. Since 2009, the Democratic Party has registered 310,000 new voters—more than twice what the GOP accomplished. That makes nearly 900,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans in New Jersey.

But by far, the biggest roadblock for the state Republican Party is the diminished legacy of Governor Chris Christie, who, under Jersey law, can’t run for another term. Not long ago, Christie was one of the GOP’s proudest success stories. During his first term, he cut deals and challenged some of the state’s seemingly untouchable institutions. In short order, he became one of the most popular governors in state history and, in many circles, the presumptive GOP nominee for president. That heaven-bound trajectory sputtered in what became known as Bridgegate, a national scandal in which one of his top aides and two Christie appointees were eventually convicted for abusing their power in orchestrating massive traffic jams on the George Washington Bridge as political payback to an uncooperative mayor.

Christie’s fall to Earth was breathtaking. By last December, his approval rating splashed down at 18 percent—the lowest ever recorded in Fairleigh Dickinson University’s PublicMind poll. In addition, more than 7 in 10 voters felt Christie should have been indicted for the GWB lane closings. Christie’s meltdown has left his party in shambles.

“The Republican Party is weaker today than it has ever been. The party structure has deteriorated to a point where it is little more than a desk, a telephone and a stack of letterhead,” says Carl Golden, a political analyst who served in the administrations of Republican governors Tom Kean Sr. and Christie Whitman.

While Bridgegate was a jolt to the governor’s reputation, there are other reasons he is so overwhelmingly disliked, principally his long absences from the state as he sought the presidency, and a barrage of budget and infrastructure setbacks that deflated his narrative of a New Jersey renaissance.

What’s more, Christie’s first-term successes did not lift the rest of the party. Despite his landslide reelection victory in 2013, the GOP failed to pick up one legislative seat. In total, Republicans have lost five seats in the Legislature since Christie was first elected in 2009.

“He’s devastated the Republican Party for a generation or more,” says Matt Hale, a political science professor at Seton Hall University. “He hasn’t built a bench, and he hasn’t allowed anyone else to grab the spotlight.”

No one knows this better than Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno, who announced her candidacy for governor in January and is considered the front-runner for her party’s nomination. At press time, Guadagno had already snagged the endorsements of 11 GOP county chairs and 11 state legislators.

Guadagno was scheduled to give the keynote speech at the League of Municipalities convention in Atlantic City this past November, just as she had for the previous three years. But at the last minute, Christie decided he would give the speech, and Guadagno was unceremoniously bumped. Many wondered if the slight wasn’t motivated by the lieutenant governor’s public opposition to Christie’s controversial decision to hike New Jersey’s gas tax to pay for a depleted Transportation Trust Fund.

After the gas-tax dustup, Christie and Guadagno came to an agreement—revealed by the governor during an interview with NJ 101.5 FM—under which she won’t go public with a contrary view unless she checks with Christie first. A spokeswoman for the lieutenant governor’s office, Suzanne Schwab, confirmed the agreement with the Asbury Park Press, but stated it would be inaccurate to characterize Guadagno as requiring permission to speak out.

It’s unknown whether Guadagno gave her boss a heads-up in December before disparaging a bill that would have let Christie circumvent a state ethics law so he could cash in on a book deal while in office. In a tweet, Guadagno called the proposed bill “ridiculous.” It was defeated.

“The lieutenant governor has been clear on areas where Governor Christie and her disagree,” says Guadagno campaign spokesman Ricky Diaz. “I’m sure many other issues will come up during this campaign where they also disagree.”

Guadagno has tried to distance herself from the governor in recent months, emphasizing their differences. Unlike Christie, she is pro-choice and claims she didn’t vote for Donald Trump. But for seven years, she stood dutifully at Christie’s side—an image any  election opponent will surely utilize.

“What does the lieutenant governor do?”  Guadagno asked rhetorically in a 2014 interview with New Jersey Monthly. “Whatever the governor tells her to do.” It may have been tongue in cheek, but it has become more relevant than she could have known.

Guadagno’s best chance to separate herself from Christie was erased when Donald Trump did not offer Christie a job in his administration. Had he taken Christie to Washington with him, Guadagno would have had a year of incumbency to step out of Christie’s shadow.

For his part, Christie has declined to endorse Guadagno—and in January, even went out of his way to take a direct shot at her candidacy.

“Don’t ever forget who the people were who didn’t support this,” Christie told members of the Laborers’ International Union of North America at a rally in Cliffwood, in reference to the gas tax. “There is no excuse for any Republican, after the deal we made to get this done, to not have stood up to support this.”

Guadagno’s most formidable competitor for the GOP nomination appears to be Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli of Hillsborough, who threw his hat in the ring last summer. But Ciattarelli stunned the Trenton press corps in January when he announced he was scaling back his campaign schedule after undergoing successful surgery for throat cancer. He stressed that his prognosis was excellent and he would return full bore to the campaign trail in mid-February after completing radiation therapy.

Ciattarelli, a businessman and father of four, has a reputation as a smart, policy-oriented legislator. The reforms he has proposed include a change in public school funding. Ciattarelli asserts that the state grossly overfunds many school districts, like Jersey City. He would reduce their funding by 20 percent per year over five years and redirect those funds to the most severely underfunded school districts.  He also would reform the state’s tax code to benefit homeowners and small businesses. His plan for pension reform—sure to rankle the state’s powerful public-employee unions—includes elimination of post-retirement health care benefits for current and future public workers if their pension and Social Security benefits exceed $50,000 per year.

Unlike most of his Republican colleagues in the Statehouse, Ciattarelli has not been afraid to cross swords with Christie, even when the governor was at the zenith of his popularity.

“This is not the time for a Chris Christie third term,” Ciattarelli said at a candidates’ forum in Trenton, an obvious dig at the lieutenant governor. Like Guadagno, Ciattarelli came out against Donald Trump during the presidential campaign, calling him an “embarrassment.”

But New Jersey history is not on Ciattarelli’s side either. It’s been 88 years since a state legislator—Morgan F. Larson—was elected governor. What’s more, Ciattarelli is little known outside of his Somerset County circles. He faces “a Herculean task to achieve the statewide name recognition necessary to mount an effective campaign,” says Golden.

Ciattarelli has an answer for that: “The Chicago Cubs won the World Series, and Donald Trump was elected president. If ever there was a time for beating the odds, it’s now.”

Indeed, some believe that the GOP’s best shot at winning the general election lies with a long-shot candidate, who might be able to replicate President Trump’s unorthodox campaign. That is what Nutley Commissioner Steve Rogers is banking on. Rogers, an adviser to Trump’s campaign, vowed to “renew and restore New Jersey” when he announced his candidacy in December. “I’m a regular guy, a middle-class guy who has a calling from God,” said Rogers, an Air Force veteran, former Nutley cop and occasional contributor to CNN and Fox.

Also sounding a Trump-like note is Ocean County businessman and actor Joseph “Rudy” Rullo, who announced his candidacy over a year ago. A staunch Second Amendment advocate, Rullo vows to “drain the swamp in Trenton.” Comedian Joe Piscopo, a former Democrat, now independent, says he is “seriously considering” a run as a Republican.

On the Democratic side, businessman Phil Murphy leads the field for the nomination, with state senator Ray Lesniak and Assemblyman John Wisniewski among the other contenders. In late January, a Quinnipiac University poll had Murphy leading Guadagno by 16 points, with 22 percent undecided. Each party will hold its gubernatorial primary on June 6.

Regardless of the political calculus, when the new governor takes office next year, he or she will have to tackle a number of daunting challenges Christie leaves behind. The New Jersey comeback he promised simply never happened. In November, Standard and Poor’s downgraded New Jersey’s credit rating for the 10th time under Christie, citing pension funding, declining revenue and a budget hole opened by Christie’s sales- and estate-tax cuts.

Those cuts approved by Christie in October, part of a transportation funding trade-off, will trigger an annual budget shortfall of at least $1 billion. And the state’s $135.7 billion pension shortfall will not go away on its own.

Adding to those problems, New Jersey employment is expected to grow only about 2 percent over the next 10 years, a far cry from the 9.5 percent forecast nationwide, according to a study by Rutgers University Economic Advisory Service.

“Christie’s imprint on the Republican Party in New Jersey will be lasting for good or ill. Right now, given his low job approval ratings, I think his legacy is a net liability,” says Ross Baker, political science professor at Rutgers University.

Christie’s actions have also affected the state GOP coffers, according to Brigid Callahan Harrison, a political science professor at Montclair State University. The state party has paid more than $700,000 in legal fees and travel expenses for Christie, she notes—money that could have been used for upcoming legislative races.

She also notes that many of the millions of dollars Christie raised for his failed presidential bid came from New Jersey contributors, which could cost other Republicans running for office in the state. “There’s a limited pool of individuals who donate in New Jersey,” she says.

“The party is in a worse fiscal situation now than when he took over,” Harrison concludes. “Not only does the state GOP now lack the funding ability to counter the amount of money Phil Murphy, the likely Democratic candidate, will spend, the governor has squandered the opportunity to leave a political and financial legacy.”

Add it all up, and it doesn’t look good for New Jersey Republicans.

“The stars by which we judge such matters are simply not aligned for Republicans,” says Golden. “The governor’s office in 2017 is, at the moment, the Democrats’ to lose.”

Professor Hale’s assessment of GOP chances is a bit more blunt: “Slim to none,” he says. “And Slim’s headed out of town.”

Ian T. Shearn was statehouse bureau chief for the Star-Ledger and is now a freelance journalist. He was part of the Ledger team that won a Pulitzer Prize in 2005.

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