By Richard A. Lee
Since he took office a little more than a year ago, Governor Chris Christie has been demonized by his critics. Chrsitie’s actions have generated harsh charges that he’s a bully, that he’s stubborn, and that he’s insensitive.
The sharp criticism, however, has not produced the results Christie’s political opponents had hoped for. Instead, the Governor continues to enjoy high poll numbers and has emerged as a popular national figure, with a loyal and ardent group of supporters who rally around his words and actions.
With all 120 seats in the State Legislature on the ballot in November, there is a lesson to be learned here.
Democrats are likely to continue to rail against the Republican Governor. That’s normal politics, but it may not be the best strategy for victory in the current political climate.
A special election that took place last year in the 14th Legislative District provides some insight into what may lie ahead in this year’s contests. In that special election, conducted after State Senator Bill Baroni resigned to take a post at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, Democratic Assemblywoman Linda Greenstein defeated Republican Tom Goodwin, who had been appointed to Baroni’s former Senate seat.
On one hand, the demographics and dynamics of the 14th District are unique, so the results of last year’s special election should not be viewed as a precursor to all of this year’s legislative elections. But on the other hand, the pointed attacks that Democrats regularly level against the Governor were not a major factor in Greenstein’s successful campaign. As operatives from the Greenstein and Goodwin campaigns explained during a February 10 conference at Rider University’s Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics, Greenstein’s victory was due in large part to her work as a State Assemblywoman and the relationships she built during her 10 years in the Legislature. Since Christie’s favorability rating did not drop below 58 percent during the campaign, it would have been ill advised to attack the Governor.
On the Republican side, the Goodwin campaign’s strategy – to paint Greenstein as a tax-and-spend Democrat – did not produce a victory. Other factors – such as the Democrats’ advantages in funding and registered voters – likely played just as great, or greater, roles. Nevertheless, it is worth noting that that the type of rhetoric which voters typically hear from both parties during political campaigns was not a major factor in the outcome of this race.
Voters are growing increasingly frustrated with the polarization and partisanship dominating the world of government and politics. The optimist in me hopes that candidates and their campaign staffs will take heed of what transpired in New Jersey’s 14th Legislative District last year and replace some of the rhetoric with substance. The realist in me is not so optimistic.
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Richard A. Lee is Communications Director of the Hall Institute. A former State House reporter and Deputy Communications Director for the Governor, he also teaches courses in media, politics and government at Rutgers University, where he is completing work on a Ph.D. in media studies. Read more of Rich’s columns at richleeonline and follow him on Twitter.