By Patrick Murray
A big win in November is exactly what Chris Christie wants, right?
It will increase his leverage with the legislature and bolster his 2016 selling point as the one Republican who can win over Blue State voters. A really big win, though, could lead to unintended consequences that would undercut both of those objectives.
Let’s go back to the legislative map drawn up in 2011 – the one that seemingly ensured Democrats a decade-long majority in both chambers. Of course, that assumed it would be business as usual at the top of the ticket. A Republican could certainly win the governor’s race, but getting a vote share far north of 50 percent would be nearly impossible.
Well, we now have a GOP governor who is realistically flirting with a 60 percent vote share. If that pans out in November, his coattails will make a lot of legislative races much closer than anyone expects, especially in the Senate.
Gov. Christie has been successful in Trenton largely by working with Senate President Steve Sweeney and his coalition of Democrats. While Christie hasn’t gotten everything he’s asked for – like confirmation of his Supreme Court nominees for instance – he has been able to claim victory on some key high-profile initiatives such as budget cuts and pension reform.
The bottom line is stability in legislative leadership is the best outcome for Chris Christie’s national ambitions.
If he wins big, there is an outside chance that Republicans could pick up the five seats necessary to take control of the Senate. While this outcome is still improbable, it is not the impossibility it was just six months ago. In this scenario, Democrats in the Assembly, who have taken a backseat to the Senate when negotiating with the governor, would likely be emboldened to hobble Christie’s second-term agenda. However, his appointments – such as the aforementioned court nominations – would sail through the Senate. So the impact would balance out.
The more perilous outcome in the event of a Christie electoral blowout is that Republicans are able to pick off two or three key Senate incumbents, leaving Democrats with a reduced majority of 21 to 22 seats. This will be especially dangerous if those gains come from the southern portion of the state.
In 2010, Steve Sweeney knocked Dick Codey out of the Senate president’s chair. That coup was made possible by a coalition of six South Jersey Democrats (Sweeney, Jeff Van Drew, Jim Whelan, Fred Madden, Dana Redd, and Jim Beach), two each from Essex (Teresa Ruiz and Nia Gill), Union (Ray Lesniak and Nick Scutari), and Middlesex (Bob Smith and Barbara Buono) and one each from Hudson (Brian Stack) and Bergen (Paul Sarlo). These 14 legislators declared their intention to side with Sweeney in October 2009, which sealed Codey’s fate before the legislative elections even took place.
Of the five Senate seats targeted by the GOP this year, three are part of this coalition, all from the incumbent Senate president’s South Jersey base – including Sweeney’s own seat. A loss of two seats (i.e. Whelan and Van Drew) would reduce that coalition.
That original coalition also included Buono who won’t be in the Senate next year – and wouldn’t support Sweeney anyway if she were. Another member of that coalition,
Gill, is facing a serious primary challenge from former Obama advisor, Mark Alexander. So Sweeney’s core band could be down to 10.
The question is whether Sweeney can hold on to at least two others – such as Loretta Weinberg, Bob Gordon and Sandra Cunningham – in order to maintain majority support within his caucus. Maybe, but a depleted South Jersey bloc could be like chum in the water to some of these more progressive Democrats, leading to a wholesale realignment of the caucus.
That realignment could be more obstructionist toward Gov. Christie’s agenda. That could mean no key policy successes to bolster his 2016 campaign and a continued hold on major appointments.
There is another potential election outcome that could throw a wrench into Gov. Christie’s second term. That would be if Republicans pick up one only seat, but it happens to be Sweeney’s. That outcome is not outside the realm of possibility.
Then things would get really interesting.
Patrick Murray is the founding director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute in West Long Branch.