Alan Greenblatt is a GOVERNING correspondent.E-mail: email@example.com
Chris Christie, the former U.S. attorney, is still the favorite in the GOP primary next month. He's got a fundraising advantage and the support of state officials, but perhaps just as importantly he's also sewn up the county-level party lines. Steve Lonegan, a former mayor of Bogota in North Jersey, has been closing the gap, mainly because his anti-tax message has been more resonant than Christie's cautious campaign, but most people think Christie pulls it out.
He'll start with a polling lead over the incumbent, Democrat Jon Corzine. The state's economic and budget woes have left Corzine with the lowest approval rating of any governor in modern New Jersey polling history, at least according to Quinnipiac. But the state is trending so Democratic -- Democrats have won 16 of the 18 statewide races (including federal offices) since 1990 -- and Corzine will have so much of his own money to spend defining his opponent, that people think the race will be close.
That's the conventional wisdom, at the moment. And then there's Brigid Harrison, a professor of politics and law at Montclair State. She's one of the most widely-cited talking heads on New Jersey politics and I found her sense of the race to be strikingly different from other people I've consulted.
She thinks it will be Corzine, by a mile. And she doesn't dismiss Lonegan's chances in the primary.
Harrison agrees that primary voters tend to stick to the party line. But she notes that Lonegan has been getting not just fundraising help from conservative organizations but air support from groups running anti-Christie ads suggesting some ethical lapses. Democrats, meanwhile, are trying to pull a Gray Davis -- interfering with the other party's primary in order to promote the candidate they think will be weaker in the general election.
Harrison looks back to the stem cell research question on the New Jersey ballot in 2007, which lost despite a heavy personal investment by Corzine. She says that it "lost because Lonegan was enormously effective in rallying the pro-life constituency." His organizational muscle and clear appeal to more conservative voters are obviously major assets in a low-turnout primary.
"He's built an organization that is rather formidable and has been rather a thorn in the side of party regulars for the last couple of years," Harrison says.
But a Lonegan upset would be for nought, Harrison also believes. She thinks the general election is, in fact, easier to call than the GOP primary.
Her reasons for predicting Corzine's reelection include: increased Democratic registration, in part because of the contested presidential primary last year; the up-ballot support Corzine will get from majority Democrats running for reelection to the legislature; Corzine's deep pockets; and the fact that Christie and Lonegan are using ammunition on each other that might have been better saved for the fall.
"People are looking at these polls and saying Corzine can lose," she says. But the polls at this point are looking at registered voters, which may be misleading.
"After Labor Day, when they start doing likely voters, you'll see Corzine roaring ahead," Harrison says. "First by six, then eight, then 12 percent."
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