National Republicans wait to help New Jersey Governor Chris Christie in high-stakes showdown with unions

Jon Ward Contributor
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New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has become an Internet video sensation among conservatives for the blunt and confrontational way he has challenged the state’s unions and the press in a showdown over budget cuts.

But in his own state, the Republican governor’s job approval rating has plummeted in the last three months, as the unions and their allies have spent as much as $5 million on critical TV ads.

In early March, Christie’s approval stood at 52 percent, with only 21 percent disapproving. By late May, the governor’s approval had slipped to 44 percent, while disapproval had spiked to 42 percent.

Christie’s policies remain popular. About 60 percent of state voters said in late May that the state government should reduce spending even if that meant cuts to many programs, while only 23 percent were in favor of raising taxes to continue funding state programs.

And the New Jersey Education Association, which has spearheaded attacks on Christie, has seen its disapproval rating go from 35 percent at the end of March to 44 percent this week.

Nonetheless, the quick and dramatic shift in the governor’s job approval has alarmed his advisers, according to outsiders who have been in contact with them. And Republicans at the national level have begun to draft plans for a response.

Ed Gillespie, a former Republican National Committee Chairman and senior White House adviser to President George W. Bush, said that Christie’s showdown with the unions “may be the most important public policy debate in the country right now.”

“The teachers’ unions are trying to send a signal to all fiscal conservatives that it’s not worth it to try to tackle legacy costs that are bankrupting states and the Federal Government,” Gillespie said in an interview. “Conservatives around the country should be rallying to his defense and supporting those who are supporting him.”

Nothing has been decided, as national Republicans wait for Christie and his administration to decide whether they want outside help or not.

“Something needs to be done. There’s a lot of buzz in conservative circles,” said one senior Republican operative who works for a national organization. “But to date no one has stepped forward and said this is the plan.”

Christie spokesman Mike Drewniak said that the governor has made a number of tough decisions right in a row early in his term – he was elected in November – with the expectation that he would take some lumps.

“The poll numbers dipped but if this is as bad as it gets, that’s not too bad,” said Drewniak.

“We’ve been through a lot in the last couple of months and he’s been very hard-hitting with the unions, we think deservedly so,” he said. “We are exposing them for what they are.”

Christie closed a $2.3 billion deficit immediately upon taking office last fall, and closed it through spending cuts. He vetoed a bill to raise taxes on millionaires in the state. He has now presented a budget for the 2011 fiscal year, which begins in July, that will make even more drastic cuts to close a $10.7 billion budget shortfall.

The governor’s biggest test will come over the next few months as he tries to get a question on the ballot for this fall that would permanently cap property tax increases at no more than 2.5 percent each year. New Jersey currently has the highest property taxes in the country, and since 2000 property taxes have risen by an average of 60 percent all together, though former Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine capped property tax increases at 4 percent in 2007.

The New Jersey Education Association has spearheaded the attacks on Christie’s policies, accusing him of wanting to cut essential services in his budget.

“New Jersey’s public schools are the best in America,” said Barbara Keshishian, the NJEA’s president, in one of the union’s ads. “But the governor is cutting more than a billion dollars in school aid.”

“These cuts will devastate New Jersey’s public schools, and our students will suffer,” Keshishian said, asking voters to call the governor and “tell him to get his priorities straight.”

The governor has argued that one of the big changes he is making is asking that union teachers pay 1.5 percent of their salary, up from nothing right now.

“If the average teacher makes $55,000, we’re talking $825 annually for full family medical, dental and vision coverage. Less than $69 a month,” Christie said in a speech last week.

“This is not about a fight with individual teachers,” he said. “This is about a union that has decided that everyone they represent is entitled to free medical, dental and vision benefits for themselves and their families from the day they’re hired until the day they die.”

On this year’s budget, Christie actually has a good chance of getting what he wants. The New Jersey constitution gives its governor unusual powers, in particular a line item veto that allows the state’s chief executive to eliminate changes to his budget by the legislature one by one.

“In many states, the legislature would get hold of the budget that’s been trimmed responsibly, all interests would get their piece of the pie back in it, and it would be the same old shenanigans,” Drewniak said. “Here however, we have a governor with a line item veto and he will not allow that to happen.”

As for maintaining public support, radio ads by the New Jersey Republican Party have gone up on the air, but not much else.

“Say ‘no’ to more tax increases,” the radio ad says. “And say ‘yes’ to finally cutting spending. We can get our state back on track.”

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