All over but the shouting

How much of a sure thing is New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s re-election?  Democratic candidates for the legislature are running ads touting their ability to reach across the aisle and work with him. The spots mention Christie by name and title, a not too subtle nod to the eventuality that Christie will be setting the agenda in Trenton for the foreseeable future.

How much of a token opposition candidate is the Democrats nominee for governor, state Senator Barbara Buono?  Consider that New Jersey’s rising Democratic star – Newark Mayor Cory Booker – drew not one but three high-profile opponents in the special U.S. Senate election primary, including two sitting Congressmen and the Speaker of the State Assembly. Buono was the only Democrat of note willing to challenge Christie.  Even so, former governor Brendan Byrne publicly counseled Buono to consider dropping out of the race.

Christie’s approval numbers shot up to near 80 percent in the wake of the devastation hurricane Sandy visited on the Garden State, and have remained in the mid to high 60’s. The most recent survey puts his approval at 63 percent among registered voters.  Christie is popular with men and women, splits evenly among Democrats and Latinos, and even earns 36 percent favorability among African-Americans.  Independents – which make up roughly half of the electorate in New Jersey – view the governor favorably by 67-27.

Some national conservatives view the warm embrace and praise Christie offered President Obama in the aftermath of the storm during the waning days of the 2008 campaign as a betrayal. But Christie doesn’t see it that way.  The people of New Jersey elected him to do a job, he might say. At the time, the job required him to represent the seriousness of the situation to the federal government, and to secure the fastest possible assistance for those affected. He would make no apologies for doing so, and New Jerseyans of all political persuasions respect him for it.

What accounts for his across the board popularity?  Christie’s famously blunt, even blustery, speaking style certainly plays a part.  But more than this, Christie is liked because he is viewed as a politician who does what he says, and who gets things done.  More conservative than the electorate – registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by 700,000 – Christie nonetheless has pushed a conservative agenda in office, managing to enact signature pieces of reform with Democratic support.

Little more than a month after being sworn in, faced with a $2 billion fiscal year budget gap, Christie called together the Democratic controlled state legislature and announced a spending freeze and unilateral cuts to 375 state government programs. The freeze held back $475 million in planned state aid to local school districts, and called for an additional $800 million in education funding reductions the following year. Unsurprisingly, the powerful teachers’ union came out in full force against the governor.

The union backed a Democratic proposal to close the budget shortfall by reinstating New Jersey’s lapsed “millionaire’s tax” – actually a surcharge on incomes over $400,000. Union leaders sought to paint Christie as a champion of the rich and powerful at the expense of the middle class; a charge that has caused more than one Republican to back down over the years.

Christie countered the union’s tax increase proposal with a challenge:  he called on teachers to voluntarily agree to a one year wage freeze and a permanent 1.5% of salary contribution toward the cost of their health insurance.  The governor said that doing so would save school districts across the state more than the $820 million he was proposing to cut, resulting in no net reductions for education. Furthermore, Christie called on voters to reject the local school budget in any district in which the teachers did not agree.  That April, voters took the governor’s side in the dispute, sending nearly six in ten school budgets down to defeat.  The teachers’ union has barely been heard from since.

Christie next set his sights on property taxes and public sector pensions, seeking to slow the growth of skyrocketing municipal budgets.  Working with Democrats, Christie signed a 2% cap on local property taxes, requiring municipalities to seek voter approval for increases greater than the cap with limited exceptions.  Democrats also signed on to the governor’s pension reform package, which mandates greater public employee contributions, increases the retirement age for new hires and the length of service to be eligible for early retirement, and eliminates cost of living adjustments.  All told, the reforms are projected to save taxpayers $120 billion over 30 years.

All of this has New Jersey conservatives rejoicing.  Christie is winning 94 percent of Republicans.  That said, the governor is not shy about calling his own party out when he feels it is not working to his state’s benefit, such as when he blasted House Republicans for holding up approval of a hurricane Sandy relief package.  His comments on the government shutdown spread blame equally to the White House and the House GOP leadership.  Conservative critics say comments like these are meant to cynically shore up his own support among independents at the expense of his party while laying the groundwork for a national campaign.

Democrats have accused him of governing to curry favor with conservative primary voters, vetoing bills to legalize same sex marriage and enact new restrictions on gun ownership. Christie is having none of it. In a recent gubernatorial debate, Christie was asked about his national ambitions.  He was characteristically blunt.  “I’m not going to commit tonight [on] whether I’m running for president or not,”

Christie said. “I can walk and chew gum at the same time. I can do this job and worry about my future.”

Later in that same debate, Christie flashed what is likely the real reason for his popularity, his common touch.  Like him or not, believe him to be a conservative warrior or a Northeastern liberal Republican, Christie comes off as genuine.  Asked to name one thing about her opponent she admired, Buono reached for snark.  “He’s great on late night TV, just not so great in New Jersey,” she quipped.  Christie’s response was devastating.

“She’s obviously a good and caring mother and someone who cares deeply about public service,” Christie said, facing his opponent. “And while we have policy disagreements.I would never denigrate her service.  I think we need more people who care about our communities to be able to stand up and do the job she has done over the last 20 years.”

Game, set and match.