It is fitting, I suppose, that the right-wing screechers have it so wrong again. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is the most popular politician in the country, but they hate him. They have generally fallen for pols who are anathemas to everyone but them (Rick Santorum, Sharron Angle, Richard Mourdock, Todd Aiken), so it make sense that the Republicans who appeal to a wide cross-section of voters are anathemas to the crowd that seeks refuge in policy positions — be it gay marriage or immigration — rejected by so many Americans.
It just might be that Christie, who is super-popular in a deep-blue state, understands New Jersey and its voters a tad better than talk-show hosts, junior lawmakers from deep-red locales and right-wing bloggers with fewer readers than there are residents of Newark. They are excoriating Christie for setting the U.S. Senate special election for October rather than holding out until November 2014.
Let’s look at the assumptions behind the hissy fitting. Who knows the liberal New Jersey Supreme Court better: Christie (a lawyer and former prosecutor born in the Garden State) or a talk-show host who has never read the statute or looked at the precedent? People familiar with Christie’s thinking tell me the attempt to postpone the special election for 18 months would have been instantly challenged, created a storm of controversy over his appointee, and, more likely than not, overturned.
More to the point, whoever had the idea — even with an 18-month appointee (should Christie have beaten the legal odds) — that New Jersey is a winnable Senate seat for the GOP? Let’s get real. New Jersey has 5,463,097 registered voters as of May 7. Of those, more than 2.6 million (47 percent) are unaffiliated, 32.5 percent are Democrats and barely a million (less than 20 percent) are Republicans. In a midterm election (as opposed to an off-year special election), would the Republican have stood a chance simply because Christie stuck his choice in there (despite the legal and political backlash)?
To get some perspective on both the quality of the New Jersey bench and the electoral imbalance, let’s review some recent numbers. In 2012:
Barack Obama: 58% (2,117,175 votes)
Mitt Romney: 41% (1,472,709 votes)
Robert Menendez : 58% (1,828,417 votes)
Joe Kyrillos: 40% (1,244,734 votes)
Not even close. In 2008, the Republican Dick Zimmer lost to Sen. Frank Lautenberg in the Senate race by about 500,000 votes (14 percentage points).
Well, what about a non-presidential year? In 2002, Menendez beat Thomas Kean Jr. for the Senate seat by about 200,000 votes, a 9-point margin. In 2002, Republican Doug Forrester lost to Lautenberg by 10 percentage points.
In what political universe would the New Jersey Senate race be in play? (Probably the same one in which a California Senate seat would be.) In short, the idea that a Senate race could have been postponed until November 2014 and could be captured by the GOP is totally unrealistic.
What is realistic is that with Christie at the top of the ticket this November and with no Cory Booker on the ballot, a whole bunch of state Republicans might be elected, and the state Senate might even fall into GOP hands. And yes, it might also allow Christie to roll up a big win. Imagine a pol acting out of self-interest! And shame on him for looking for a more conservative legislature to get more of his agenda passed in the second term.
If the chance of picking up a seat in the state legislature is greater than the chance of getting a U.S. Senate seat, then Christie did precisely the right thing. And if he wants to get more fiscally conservative bills passed and bolster his own stature, he did the right thing. It is funny that the people who most despise him on the right want him to take the opposite action.
And let’s not pooh-pooh the idea of an off-year U.S. Senate race in which the Democrats have a nasty three-way primary brewing (Mayor Cory Booker, Rep. Rush Holt, and Rep. Frank Pallone). The race is likely to be closer for Republicans in an off-year special election than at any other time.
It is ironic that the same voices that are hollering at Christie are doing so little to help promote Gabriel Gomez in Massachusetts, which is a winnable Senate race currently in single digits (or, according to one GOP poll, statistically tied). The right-wing crowd seems much more interested in beating up on Christie than helping the GOP to maximize its chances in the one Senate race that is winnable this year.
It’s a challenge for any elected Republican to screen out the noise from pundits and far-right lawmakers. But Trenton, in a lot of ways, is far from D.C., and Christie is a confident man. Maybe that is why his staff seems indifferent to the fussing of national right-wing pundits. A Republican doesn’t get to a 20- or 30-point lead in New Jersey by being a sap.