New Jersey Dems Planning to 'Torch' Corzine?

It could be déjà vu all over again in New Jersey, as rumors percolate that Democrats may force incumbent Gov. Jon Corzine off the November ballot if his poll numbers do not improve quickly. Corzine, a former United States Senator and first-term governor, trails Republican challenger Christopher Christie by nearly double-digits in aggregate polling in the governor’s race and has not enjoyed a lead over Christie in any poll since early January.

The Corzine campaign denies that the governor would consider dropping out, calling talk of a replacement “gossip.”  But New Jersey Democrats have replaced a poorly performing incumbent in the middle of an election once before.  

In the 2002 Senate race between Sen. Robert Torricelli and businessman Doug Forrester, Torricelli dropped out of the race in late September amid allegations that he improperly accepted gifts from a campaign contributor.  At the time, Torricelli, nicknamed “the Torch,” trailed Forester by double-digits, similar to Corzine’s predicament.

Republicans challenged the replacement in court, but Democrats won a ruling from the New Jersey Supreme Court ignoring a state law that set a deadline of 51 days from an election for a candidate to be replaced.  The unanimous ruling allowed then former Senator Frank Lautenberg to appear on the ballot, just over a month before the election.  Lautenberg went on to win the race.

Now, published reports indicate that Democrats may be planning to resurrect that successful strategy in the governor’s race.  National Review Online first reported anecdotal evidence that Democrats were polling a potential replacement for Corzine.  The New York Times later reported that top New Jersey party officials were considering Newark Mayor Cory Booker, a rising star in the state Democratic Party, as a stand-in.  The poll reportedly asked registered Democrats how they would vote if Booker were on the ballot instead of the governor.

Booker has expressed interest in running for governor in the future, but has publicly committed to Corzine’s re-election.

But not all Democrats may be so willing to wait.  According to the same Times report, Rep. Frank Pallone “has made it known” that he would step in for Corzine if the governor bowed out of the race. Pallone was also considered as a replacement for Torricelli when he dropped out of his Senate race in 2002.

Another Democrat considered as a replacement for Torricelli was Sen. Robert Menendez, then a member of the House. Corzine appointed Menendez to fill the vacancy left when he was elected governor.  Menendez has expressed his displeasure with Corzine’s campaign team, and has urged the governor to shake up his staff.  But his designs on the governor’s mansion remain unknown.

Neither Menendez nor Pallone are talking about their future plans.  Their offices did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Meanwhile, as Democrats consider their options in private, the Christie campaign may have been holding its fire against Corzine for fear of driving him out of the race, according to Soren Dayton, a veteran Republican campaign operative not affiliated with the Christie campaign.  

“Now there is no legal barrier [to replacing Corzine],” Dayton said, referring to the state law that Democrats and the state Supreme Court circumvented in the Torricelli case.  “Later, we get into the [Torricelli] situation, where it is possibly not legal and more politically costly.”

Dayton was speaking in the wake of last month’s arrests of 44 mostly Democratic state politicians and politically connected individuals on charges of official corruption. The scandal hit close to Corzine.  

A member of his cabinet, Department of Community Affairs Commissioner Joseph Doria, Jr., resigned after his home was raided by federal agents in connection with the sting.  Three sitting Democratic mayors, including Corzine’s hometown Hoboken mayor, were also among those arrested.

Christie was initially reluctant to use the arrests to his advantage, despite his reputation as a corruption-busting U.S. Attorney for Newark under President George W. Bush.  He said that he was “unable to think of the scandal in political terms,” and later seemed to let Corzine of the hook, saying the governor could not be held “personally responsible” for the corruption arrests.  He has since released a television commercial touting his record as a corruption fighter.

As Labor Day approaches, and brings with it the traditional start of the fall campaign, Christie maintains a healthy lead over Corzine. Recent polls from Democratic polling firms have shown the governor pulling to within as few as three points of Christie. However, the most recent Rasmussen Reports and Quinnipiac surveys of the race have Christie holding leads of eight and nine points respectively.   

Corzine’s disapproval ratings have been hovering around 60 percent and his personal favorability has been in net negative territory for some time. Those numbers usually spell doom for incumbents, as Democrats well know.  

To prove his political viability, Corzine must shrink the gap between himself and Christie considerably by the middle of September, before the deadline to change candidates. If he cannot, the governor may find himself under increasing pressure not just from Christie in the governor’s race, but from within his own party to bow out.