Republicans hope Christie victory translates into House seats in N.J.

New Jersey Republicans argue Gov. Chris Christie’s (R) impressive performance in several House districts during last year’s gubernatorial race will help the party pick up seats in the midterm elections.

Christie beat Gov. Jon Corzine (D) 56-39 in freshman Rep. John Adler’s (D) district and won 51-43 in Rep. Frank Pallone Jr.’s (D) district, according to an analysis of the 2009 results. Christie also ran up impressive vote totals in Democratic strongholds like Bergen County.

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Christie won 13 of New Jersey’s 21 counties, beating Corzine by almost five points in a state where Democrats hold a significant registration advantage.

The governor’s approval rating was 52 percent in a recent Fairleigh Dickinson-PublicMind poll. But support for his agenda is much higher — 65 percent of respondents in a January Quinnipiac University poll supported Christie “getting tough” with state workers — at least for now.

“Is Christie still popular? Yes,” said Maurice Carroll, who directs the Quinnipiac Polling Institute. “But will he still be popular enough in November to elect somebody? God only knows.”

Democrats are quick to dismiss comparisons between a statewide off-year election and this cycle’s midterms. Moreover, party strategists point to Corzine’s unpopularity and frustration about the state’s economy as reasons why Christie won big in traditionally Democratic territory.

At the moment, Christie isn’t focused on November, according to a spokeswoman. 

“Gov. Christie is focused on New Jersey and the hard work ahead dealing with the state’s fiscal crisis and rebuilding the economy,” said Maria Comella, Christie’s communications director.

But some observers see Christie as a shot in the arm for voters.

“I think people are extremely energized by the fact that they now have a Republican governor who hasn’t hesitated to take on the big issues,” said William Layton, chairman of the Burlington County Republicans.

Joseph Marbach, a dean at Seton Hall University in New Jersey, agrees.

“Christie’s election has really, I think, energized Republicans across the state in a way you haven’t seen in some time,” Marbach said. “He does provide [GOPers] some hope.”

National Republicans say they’re “cautiously optimistic.”

In private, Christie advisers say it’s too early to tell whether he’ll be campaigning for any House candidates later this year. If he does return to the trail, some candidates may not want to be seen with him, said Marbach.

“He’s going to be putting in a draconian budget — people are going to start feeling the cuts come fall — so public sentiment may be running against him at that time,” he said. “He may be a liability to some of the candidates.”

Republicans say Christie has already done enough to boost the party’s electoral prospects. The activists and volunteers who helped propel him to victory have stayed involved at the grassroots level, said Layton.

“The great thing about winning campaigns is that people don’t disappear after they’re over,” he said. “We’ve been able to keep those people energized, keep things moving into this year’s election. That gives us a lot of momentum, I think, heading into 2010.”

Neither of New Jersey’s Democratic senators will be on the ballot this year.

And Christie won’t have to dig deep for motivation to campaign against House Democrats. In June last year, as the gubernatorial campaign was ratcheting up, Christie was called to testify about deferred prosecution agreements before a House subcommittee. The encounter degenerated into a political circus, complete with Christie storming out as Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) called after him to finish testifying. Pallone and Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.), neither of whom was on the committee, watched the events unfold from front-row seats.

“Christie strikes me as the kind of candidate who might forgive but he doesn’t forget,” Marbach said. “I’m sure he would delight in a strong challenge to Pallone.”

Pallone isn’t considered to be in danger, but Republicans are hoping a strong challenge will bleed away some of his campaign cash that would otherwise go to help other Democrats.

Adler’s seat, however, is considered a top pickup opportunity for Republicans.

Jon Runyan, a former Philadelphia Eagle, is expected to be the GOP nominee facing Adler. Runyan’s campaign strategists say they’re modeling their House campaign on Christie’s gubernatorial effort.

“We think that the model that the Christie campaign used, which is a focus on the economy and taxes here in New Jersey, is a good one for us as well,” said Chris Russell, an adviser to Runyan and other New Jersey GOP House challengers.

“The issue matrix is very similar,” he added, noting that Adler served in the State Legislature during Corzine’s tenure as governor. “Not only is John Adler going to have to defend his record as a foot solider for Nancy Pelosi in Washington, but John Adler was rubber-stamping the very budgets that got Jon Corzine voted out of office.”

Democrats dismissed Runyan’s attack.

“It’s impossible to take Runyan’s cookie-cutter attacks seriously considering the only thing we know about him is that he can’t bring himself to vote regularly and he’s not paying his fair share of property taxes,” said Shripal Shah, a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.