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DGA Memo: New Jersey Gubernatorial Race

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“We think we can do well in both Virginia – where we have a chance for a pickup – and New Jersey in 2017.”

RGA Chair Gov. Scott Walker, 11/15/16

Just 6 months ago, Republicans were confident in their ability to hold New Jersey’s governorship. Today, those dreams have come crashing down, besieged by the twin destructive forces of Governor Chris Christie and President Donald Trump.

Today’s primary in New Jersey marks the start of the 2017 general election, and Republicans are well on their way to losing the New Jersey governorship. Christie’s approval ratings are below 20 percent, while Trump’s have ranged from the 20s to the low 30s. Meanwhile, either Republican candidate is poised to continue the disastrous policies of the Christie administration.

Democrats stand in a very strong position heading into the general election. Democrats have put forward strong candidates who have shown a clear alternative path to the Christie-Trump agenda.

Polling and Projections

Both the governor and the president are deeply unpopular in New Jersey.

President Trump, who lost the state by 14 points in last year’s election, now holds a lowly 28 percent approval rating according to a recent Fairleigh-Dickinson University poll. Trump has already dropped nine points since he took office in January.

Governor Christie fares even worse than the president. Christie has earned the title of “least popular governor in America” in recent months. A Quinnipiac University poll from May had the governor at 18-77 approval/disapproval. 65 percent of voters consider the Christie administration “mainly a failure.” Even Republicans have fled from Christie, with just 46 percent approving of the job he’s done. 

Sabato’s Crystal Ball and Inside Elections’ Nathan Gonzales rate the race as “Likely Democrat.”

The Failures of the Christie Administration

Christie’s support is abysmal for a reason. While Christie spent time trying to build his national profile, he severely mismanaged the state’s finances.

New Jersey’s budget problems consistently dogged the current governor. On Christie’s watch, the state’s credit rating was downgraded eleven times, the most of any governor in U.S. history. Budget analysts project state revenues this year will fall $687 million short of Christie’s estimates. In its downgrade of the state’s debt, Moody’s noted the state’s annual operating deficit could reach $3.6 billion by 2023 without significant changes. 

The “bridgegate” scandal also still looms large in the minds of New Jersey voters as several Christie aides were sentenced in late March. But even when Christie actually tried to make transportation work, he failed. According to the New Jersey Star-Ledger, “in less than a decade, New Jersey Transit has gone from a national model to a regional punch line.”

The Trump Agenda Would be a Disaster for New Jersey

Trump hasn’t just alienated New Jersey voters on style alone, but on substance too.

The Republican health care bill, Trump’s chief legislative effort, would hit New Jersey “harder than any other state” in the country. The law is projected to kick over 500,000 residents in the state off their insurance, cuts Medicaid putting added stress on New Jersey’s dwindling financial health, and increases premiums for seniors tenfold in the worst cases.

Trump’s budget proposal is perhaps even worse. He wants to slash the program that helped residents recover from Hurricane Sandy. It would cut federal funding for the New Starts program which is crucial to funding the Gateway Tunnel project under the Hudson. Trump’s budget is so toxic, even Republican members of the state’s congressional delegation shied away from supporting it. 

Trump has also proposed eliminating federal money for Planned Parenthood. Christie already eliminated state funding for the women’s health care provider several years ago, which turned out to be an incredibly unpopular and harmful decision for the state. Further attacks on women’s health care likely won’t be welcomed by voters in the Garden State. 

The Stakes of the Race

The New Jersey gubernatorial race has always provided a first look at the national mood following a presidential election. In 2009, the Washington Post and the Associated Press both named the New Jersey race as a “barometer” for what might come in the midterm elections a year after. 

In fact, the Republican Governors Association specifically singled it out as a referendum on the President’s agenda. The RGA Vice-Chairman at the time, Gov. Tim Pawlenty, also described the race as a “barometer” of the national mood.

This year, it’s no different. Chris Christie’s record of failure will be on the ballot. President Trump’s record of chaos and controversy will be on the ballot. Voters understand this is the first real chance to push back. 

For a state that’s had a Republican in the governor’s mansion for 24 of the last 36 years, electing a Democrat would send a strong message that voters are unhappy with leadership in both Trenton and Washington D.C.

Democratic governors are on offense in the 2017-2018 election cycle. New Jersey is one of the first races – and a prime pickup opportunity. As it stands right now, there’s a whole lot for Democrats to be optimistic about.