It looks like Scott Walker has bumped Chris Christie out of the 2016 presidential race. Jeb Bush is luring moderate Republican backers (like Woody Johnson) away from Christie, and the New Jersey governor has sustained some self-inflicted wounds. But Walker may be delivering the coup de grace, by besting the New Jersey governor at his own game. Both Republicans are blue-state governors who inherited and tackled sizeable budget deficits by rolling back the power of public employee unions.
Unfortunately for Christie, New Jersey’s finances are once again in crisis, and it could get ugly.
Christie delivered his budget address yesterday, in the shadow of a judge’s ruling that blocked the governor’s effort to cut promised contributions to the state’s pension fund. As a sizeable deficit looms, Christie announced (prematurely as it turns out) an accord with the state’s teachers’ union that will revise the pension obligations. The head of the union denied a deal had been struck, setting the stage for a major brawl that will surely undercut Mr. Christie’s bragging rights as someone able to “work across the aisle.” It will also afford him ample opportunity for the kind of bullying behavior that has dulled his popularity.
New Jersey’s fiscal problems have been dire for some time. According to a 2014 study published by the Mercatus Center at George Washington University, “New Jersey faces long-run solvency problems due in part to nearly 15 years of underfunding its state and local pensions.”
Based on 2012 data, before Christie’s reforms had gained traction, Mercatus ranked New Jersey fifty-out-of-fifty states in “Fiscal Condition.” This was the mess Christie inherited. (By comparison, Wisconsin ranked number 17 in the overall fiscal assessment.)
Voters may wonder what the governor has accomplished. New Jersey’s credit rating has been downgraded eight times under Christie’s leadership, most recently last fall in reaction to ongoing revenue shortfalls and the underfunding of the state’s pension system. Despite being the eighth most highly taxed state in the nation, New Jersey’s credit rating is the second lowest -- higher only than that awarded Illinois.
Christie inherited a $54 billion pension deficit in 2010; he instituted changes that reduced the hole to $36.3 billion. Because he had delayed making promised contributions, the pension deficit grew to $47.2 billion by 2012 and is now estimated at $83 billion.
Christie acknowledged some time ago that his earlier reforms did not go far enough, and arranged for a commission to come up with a long-term solution, which according to the governor was delivered this past week. However, by also announcing that an “unprecedented accord” had been reached with the New Jersey Education Association, he apparently jumped the gun.
Scott Walker also faces some budget bumps. He claims to have eliminated the $3.6 billion deficit left by his predecessor, but has enacted tax cuts which are expected to again throw his state’s finances into the red. By comparison to New Jersey, however, Wisconsin is in good shape, with a stable and high credit rating.
Meanwhile, Christie has earned a reputation for volatility and aggression, while Walker has a reputation for being somewhat dull (a charge that Christie will never face). Christie’s popularity is at an all-time low in his state, with one recent poll showing 53 percent of New Jersey voters viewing him unfavorably, and only 37 percent holding a favorable opinion. Some 52 percent of voters in the state disapprove of Christie’s job performance, while 42 percent approve.
By contrast, in late January (before all of the excitement about his Iowa speech began to color perceptions), 51 percent of Wisconsin voters approved of the job Walker is doing, compared to 42 percent who disapprove. Forty-nine percent see Walker favorably, while 41 percent hold an unfavorable view.
Walker’s popularity has proved durable. In 2012, he survived a recall effort that attracted widespread national interest by a comfortable seven points, becoming the first governor in history to withstand such a challenge. The battle was considered a referendum on his measures weakening the bargaining position of Wisconsin’s public employee unions. Exit polls showed that 52 percent of voters backed Walker’s moves. He also easily won reelection (by almost six points) last November, with a record turnout.
Today, Walker outpolls Christie in Iowa, South Carolina, New Hampshire (by a narrower margin) and also nationally. Of course, polls are mercurial and we’re still in early innings.
Still, Chris Christie should not be underestimated. He crushed his opponent when he ran for reelection in 2013, winning over 60 percent of the vote in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans. Importantly, he won the majority of votes cast by women (against a female candidate) and Hispanics, and even garnered a good share of the young and black vote.
Christie carried a bit of rock-star glamor then, but that was before the Bridgegate scandal. Though the governor has never been linked directly with the retaliatory closing of lanes on the GW Bridge, he has struggled to regain his momentum. Compounding his difficulties have been some foolish mistakes – accepting an invitation to fly in a private jet and sit with Dallas Cowboy owner Jerry Jones, and making an ill-considered response to a question about vaccines when traveling in England. The first smacks of arrogance (and voters are unlikely to welcome more arrogance in the White House) while the second seemed amateurish.
It will take more than bluster for Christie to convince voters that he should carry the GOP banner in 2016, especially if his fiscal woes worsen, as seems likely and if he ends up doing battle with the teachers’ union. Walker survived that sort of confrontation in Wisconsin; Christie may not.
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