How N.J.’s Corzine-Christie Clash Could Hurt Obama

In electoral politics, nothing matters more than narrative. And the heated New Jersey gubernatorial race between incumbent Democrat Jon Corzine and Republican challenger Chris Christie is a good example of why-especially as it pertains to President Obama.

As with everything in the Garden State, the Corzine-Christie contest is, shall we say, colorful. (Disclaimer: I spent my first 22 years there; I kid because I love.) It's a familiar recipe. Start with a sprinkling of malfeasance: many of the 44 North Jersey political figures ensnared in last month's corruption/organ-trafficking probe were Corzine supporters; Christie is taking heat for failing to report on his tax returns and financial-disclosure forms a $46,000 loan to a top aide who still works in his former U.S. Attorney's office. Add a pinch of piquant mudslinging: Christie mocks Corzine as "oblivious"; Corzine responds by calling Christie-brace yourself-"Bush's friend." Stir in another woman-former Corzine paramour and leader of the state's largest public workers' union Carla Katz, for example, to whom the governor once loaned $470,000-and let marinate until November 3.

But more important (if less entertaining) is the national significance the New Jersey race already seems to be taking on-and how, regardless of reality, its outcome could very well be framed in ways that make life significantly more difficult for the president. That's because the contest, as Adam Nagourney wrote in the New York Times earlier this month, is "being held up as an early measure of how Mr. Obama is doing and a predictor of how Democrats might fare in next year's Congressional campaigns." This isn't unusual; opposition parties always seize on favorable state midterm results to argue that the backlash has begun, even though such results have traditionally "proved to be poor prognosticators about future elections," as Nagourney rightly notes. That said, if Christie can maintain his current advantage over Corzine through Election Day-he leads by an average of 9 percentage points in polls taken this month-several factors will conspire, I think, to make the inevitable "Republican resurgence" narrative more resilient than usual.

First off, New Jersey is hardly a purple state. Democrats outnumber Republicans 1,655,815 to 1,004,746. The state's two million Independents lean decidedly leftward. Obama clobbered John McCain by nearly 15 points last fall. No Republican has received 50 percent or more of the statewide vote since 1988. And Jerseyites haven't sent a Republican to the U.S. Senate since 1972. In other words, it's not Utah we're talking about here. What this means is that, should Christie clobber Corzine in November, he will be quick to claim that it was the strength of his Republican ideas-rather than the strength of his Republican base-that propelled him to victory despite overwhelming demographic odds. A "W" always seems more convincing on enemy terrain.     

Secondly, Corzine seems to embody, with almost eerie precision, exactly what Republicans are eager to whack Obama for-and if he loses in the fall, an emboldened GOP will only double down on those lines of attack in the months ahead. It's not just that Corzine was a prominent Obama surrogate during the 2008 general election, or that Obama has returned the favor by headlining recent Corzine rallies and fundraisers and appearing in the governor's latest television ads. It's that he's a former Goldman Sachs CEO who has hiked taxes and pushed for expanded government heath care while failing-at least in the eyes of the 62 percent of N.J. voters who disapprove of the job he's doing-to improve the state's fortunes. For Christie and the greater GOP, that's an anti-Obama threefer: score populist points by bashing the bloodsucking banks; raise hackles by railing against government overreach; cement conservative support with talk of tax cutting. Any two-bit consultant has enough material here to spin Corzine loss as a repudiation of Obama's policies-and they will.

The final and most important factor, however, may be the media. Since Election Day, there's been one story in Washington, and one story only: Barack Obama. Notoriously impatient with anything other than a horse race-like, say, the slow, painstaking process of governing-political journalists are looking for a new narrative to latch onto. And as one of only two big-ticket contests being decided in November-the other is the Virginia gubernatorial race-Corzine v. Christie seems almost certain to consume a disproportionate share of the Beltway oxygen. Also, N.B.: the New Jersey results should be rolling in at roughly the same time the grueling health-care debate is coming to a close. If Obama loses that fight and Corzine loses his, hundreds of hacks like me will find it difficult to resist bloviating about a GOP Comeback-which could very well alter the dynamics of fundraising, recruitment and party confidence heading into 2010.

C'est la vie politique. In reality, a Christie win would have very little to do with Obama. Corzine has been massively unpopular in New Jersey for years, and property taxes, ethics and old loans are deeply local issues. For his part, Christie accepts Roe v. Wade and N.J.’s strict gun-control laws and is not particularly harsh on immigration, meaning that he won’t really be representing Republicans on the national stage anytime soon. What's more, I wouldn't be surprised if, at a time of crushing economic insecurity, voters were turned off by Corzine's resolutely retro "if I can't win, he'll lose" campaign, which has sought to raise Christie's negatives by tying him to George W. Bush and Karl Rove at every turn; it might be that Christie's relatively moderate anti-corruption effort is more tonally in tune with the Age of Obama. And don't forget: Corzine could still win. Recent reports that Christie awarded no-bid contracts to friends and allies as U.S. Attorney have narrowed the polls, and New Jerseyites have a history of telling pollsters that they're on the brink of breaking their Democratic bonds before recoiling at the last minute. Still, in a town where perception is often reality, it's hard to imagine that bad news for Corzine won't be interpreted as bad news for Obama. Let the storytelling begin.