In the campaign for the Republican gubernatorial nomination in New Jersey, the race has become a classic competition between Republican "moderation" and conservatism. Former U.S. Attorney Chris Christie, the party favorite, has been zigzagging to avoid the moderate label, so happily applied to him by his more conservative opponent, former Bogota, New Jersey mayor Steve Lonegan (a former state chairman for Americans for Prosperity).
Yet so far Christie has little else to fear from his opponent -- even as Lonegan's substantial executive experience, prodigious knowledge of policy, and remarkable personal story provide compelling selling points. Lonegan is posing no threat because he has decided to be firmly unthreatening, in a manner similar to Sen. John McCain's own decision to neuter his staff and make ham-handed attempts at negative campaigning.
New Jersey's executive branch stands a decent chance of returning to Republican control. According to Rasmussen, just 9% strongly approve of the way Jon Corzine has performed as governor, while 38% strongly disapprove. Overall, 40% say they at least somewhat approve of the job Corzine's been doing. While a slight improvement since March, it shows a rare opportunity for a Republican victory in a northeastern state. Ramsussen shows Christie leading Corzine 47% to 38%, with Lonegan edging the incumbent 42% to 41%.
Christie's campaign is based on ethics and endorsements. Lonegan's is based on executive experience and policy expertise. But Christie's establishment credentials are likely to carry him across the finish line only with the help of Lonegan's tactical error in refusing to kneecap his opponent.
Convinced they can win solely on the issues, the Lonegan campaign has made few efforts to cast Christie in a negative light -- the former Bogata mayor may be the conservative, but he is moderating his campaign by playing it safe in a race that demands risk. Lonegan is behind Christie by as many as 10 points because he has done little to convey to the public that there are problems with Christie's own candidacy despite the glowing recommendations of the party establishment.
Christie's flaws are front and center, particularly for those paying attention to the major theme of his campaign -- ethics. Despite deploying the Batman-like I-came-here-to-clean-up-the-streets rhetoric, the former U.S. attorney has been haunted time and again by accusations of cronyism and unfair dealing.
In perhaps the most flagrant example, Christie's brother, Todd, was implicated in a securities fraud case. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer:
The Securities and Exchange Commission in April 2005 accused Christie's brother, Todd, of making a series of improper trades of America Online Inc. and International Business Machines Corp. stock between 1999 and 2003. In October 2008, Todd Christie settled with the SEC, admitting no wrongdoing but agreeing to stop improper trading practices, according to a copy of the settlement.
The company Todd Christie headed, Spear, Leeds & Kellogg Specialists L.L.C., settled with the SEC and agreed to pay a $16.4 million civil fine, according to a March 2004 SEC news release.
Yesterday, the Mendham Observer-Tribune published a story noting that Christie, as U.S. attorney, gave a lucrative no-bid contract to David Kelly in September 2007. Kelly was the U.S. attorney who investigated the stock fraud case that included Todd Christie.
Most attorneys, let alone public figures, are aware of the importance of both maintaining the appearance of propriety in addition to actually upholding an ethical standard. Yet one year after Chris Christie gives a lucrative no-bid contract to the very U.S. attorney investigating his brother, that same brother settles with the SEC with no penalty, admitting no wrongdoing, while the rest of his company was apparently guilty enough to pay a $16.4 million civil fine. Even pretending that Todd Christie was clean, Chris Christie has left himself open to criticism from political opponents as well as reasonable skeptics.
Outside the Republican primary fight, most of Christie's political opponents have already seized on this issue. The Associated Press had no trouble finding a Democrat who understood the value of this political football:
"Christie wants us to believe that in a country with more than a million lawyers the one most qualified to receive this no-bid contract is the one that let his brother off for stock fraud? I think the people of New Jersey are smarter than that," said Democratic Party leader Joe Cryan, a state assemblyman representing Union.
Christie also awarded no-bid contracts to a former boss, John Ashcroft, and Herb Stern, who, along with his wife, donated the maximum amount to his campaign. Christie has so far responded to these allegations by emphasizing how much they hurt his feelings. Rather than offer the reams of documents that could shed light on why these decisions were made, Christie has insisted these people were the best he could find, and wants the press to take his word for it.
In other words, Christie takes political risks either out of ignorance or a Machiavellian sense of what he can get away with. These stories have been reported, investigated, and are undoubtedly sitting in a dossier compiled by Democratic opposition research -- and ready to be used by the incumbent's political machine.
Yet Lonegan is allowing himself to become mired in a debate over the merits of his flat tax proposal and the usual arguments over a conservative candidate's electability. Why? No one really seems to know, but his poll numbers don't stand a chance of increasing unless he makes an issue of Christie's own ability to win in November.
Lonegan wants to change New Jersey, but he needs to make a more convincing case that he can upset the party establishment and take on a sitting governor. Soft Republicanism can't be beaten with a soft campaign.
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