Chris Christie’s 15 percent approval rating — the lowest recorded for any governor in New Jersey — could drop even lower, perhaps into the single digits. | Andrew Mills/NJ Advance Media via AP
It was already tough being a Republican in deep blue New Jersey when Chris Christie took office in 2010, and the governor hasn’t made things any easier for his party during nearly eight tumultuous years in office.
Now, on the way out, Christie has thrown yet another hurdle in his fellow Republicans’ path: a state government shutdown and a trip to the beach that turned into a public relations disaster.
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It’s a bitter bill for some New Jersey Republicans who have been unfailingly loyal to Christie — and who had hoped the governor, with his 15 percent approval rating, would finish out the last six months of his second term quietly and leave office.
Christie made demands on Democrats who control the state Legislature for a bill to restructure the state’s largest health insurer, a move that ultimately led to a three-day state government shutdown. Then, a photo of the governor lounging with his family and friends on a beach that was closed to the public because of the shutdown went viral.
“We’re not in good shape financially or in the public’s eye,” Republican state Sen. Christopher “Kip” Bateman said. “It’s going to be a very difficult year for Republicans.”
Republicans failed to gain any seats in the Legislature even as Christie scored a landslide re-election victory in 2013. Some grumbled that the governor had cut a deal with Democratic political boss George Norcross — the patron of Democratic Senate President Stephen Sweeney — to keep Norcross’ machine from working against Christie in exchange for the governor’s inactivity on the legislative campaign trail. Christie denied it.
“I can only speak for myself and say that I believe there has been an unholy alliance between Governor Christie and Senator Sweeney, which I don’t believe is in the best interest of the people I represent in Atlantic County or this state,” said Republican Assemblyman Chris Brown, who’s running for state Senate in one of New Jersey’s most competitive legislative districts.
Again and again over the last eight years, Republicans have taken difficult votes so as not to override the governor’s vetoes — sometimes reversing their previous “yes” votes on uncontroversial bills that, had Christie signed them, would have damaged his presidential ambitions. Those votes helped cost the GOP four seats in the state Assembly in 2015.
That’s not all.
New Jersey Republicans stood by Christie during the Bridgegate scandal, even as some of his closest aides and allies were implicated. Most supported his ill-fated presidential bid, even after he drained state GOP resources laying the groundwork for it, paying hundreds of thousands of dollars for Christie’s flights aboard private jet flights around the country out of party coffers, after it had shelled out hundreds of thousands of dollars in Bridgegate-related legal fees.
As of April, the Republican State Committee had less than $30,000 on hand and more than $39,000 in debt, yet paid nearly $12,000 for the governor and his staff to stay at a five-star hotel in Washington, D.C., for President Donald Trump’s inauguration.
And after all that, some fear the governor salted the earth for Republicans with that one trip to the beach last weekend. Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, who has served under Christie during his entire time in office and is the party’s nominee to succeed him as governor, even released a statement saying the beach visit was “beyond words.”
“I was disappointed he didn’t understand the message he was sending by enjoying a beach he closed for everybody else,” said Brown, the GOP assemblyman.
Still, there are few New Jersey Republicans who will speak out publicly against the governor, who, by the nature of his office, retains extraordinary powers that can make their political lives difficult if they openly criticize him. But the frustration has long been palpable, often expressed in private conversations.
Bateman, the Republican state senator, saw the judicial nomination for an ally of his held up by Christie because he had gone against the governor, voting with Democrats several times to override Christie’s vetoes.
“I’m glad I took some of the votes I did, where I voted to override him in several cases where I thought it was right, even down to Planned Parenthood funding,” Bateman said. “I was taken to the woodshed more than once.”
During part of the three-day shutdown, Assembly Republicans appeared to have had a message: They were unified while Democrats were consumed by infighting over whether to concede to Christie’s demands.
The beach picture ensured that narrative wouldn’t take hold.
“As much as he (wanted) to spread the responsibility over to the Assembly and (Speaker Vincent) Prieto, he’s the guy that generates the most media and he’s the guy caught sunning himself on the beach when everyone else was denied access,” said Krista Jenkins, director of the Fairleigh Dickinson University PublicMind poll.
Christie’s 15 percent approval rating — the lowest recorded for any governor in New Jersey — could drop even lower, perhaps into the single digits, Jenkins said.
“The optics of this are terrible,” she said. “Yes, it’s certainly possible.”
Christie said last month he didn’t care about his approval rating since he’s not seeking re-election. But there’s evidence it’s hurting Guadagno.
In a June Quinnipiac University poll, a majority of voters — 54 percent — said Guadagno’s time serving under Christie made their opinions of her more negative. By contrast, 56 percent said Democratic nominee Phil Murphy’s background as a high-ranking Goldman Sachs executive did not affect how they felt about him. The poll also showed Murphy leading Guadagno 56 percent to 26 percent.
At the same time, New Jersey Democrats have improved their massive voter registration advantage in the state. There are now 800,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans in the state, up from 700,000 at the beginning of Christie’s first term.
As unpopular as Christie is, Mike DuHaime, the governor’s chief strategist in both his gubernatorial elections and presidential campaign, said Christie won’t be the center of this year’s gubernatorial election.
“I think we have to look at this in a much bigger picture sense. The election is going to be in five months,” DuHaime said. “The things that will be much more impactful … at that point is what’s going on between Murphy and Guadagno, what’s going on at the national level and the individual legislative races.”
DuHaime said that if New Jerseyans elect Murphy, giving Democrats control of the governor’s office as well as both houses of the Legislature — even Guadagno has acknowledged Democrats will retain control of the Legislature — they’ll warm up to Christie’s legacy.
“I feel good about where the party is,” DuHaime said. “If you go forward a year from now, if we’re not successful in the governor’s race, I think people will look back on these days and say ‘boy it was nice when we had a Republican governor.'”