The surging campaign of third-party candidate Chris Daggett has turned the New Jersey governor's race into a dead-heat and left Republicans divided over the seriousness of the threat he poses to GOP nominee Chris Christie.
Daggett, a centrist independent who is currently drawing support in the low double-digits in a series of polls, has been the apparent beneficiary of Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine’s self-funded advertising onslaught against Christie. The result has left the Republican grappling with a two-headed Hydra that could enable a narrow plurality win for the deeply unpopular incumbent.
Christie, who had been running a traditional anti-incumbent campaign against Corzine, must now reckon with a perennial question faced by candidates who are imperiled by a lesser-known, third-party contender: To attack Daggett is to elevate him, effectively acknowledging that he’s a serious candidate and offering him free publicity. But ignoring him could amount to disregarding the most serious threat to Christie’s campaign, leaving Daggett to siphon away a significant amount of voters who are intent on registering their opposition to Corzine.
The national GOP has already made its diagnosis clear, with the Republican Governors Association (RGA) launching radio and TV ads Wednesday portraying Daggett as tax-and-spender who would offer much of what they don’t like about the incumbent.
“Chris Daggett, like Corzine—only worse,” says the narrator in the TV version.
“By Election Day, it will be abundantly clear to New Jerseyans that voting for Chris Daggett is the same as voting for Jon Corzine,” said RGA spokesman Mike Schrimpf.
RGA officials believe Daggett’s rise can—and must—be arrested. Much of his support now is soft, they note, and these voters may be pushed back into Christie’s column.
Yet Christie advisers and even Christie himself seem torn over how to respond to Daggett.
The Republican has yet to hit his third-party rival on TV, but has laced into him in public appearances. Christie hammered both Corzine and Daggett at a debate earlier this month, but of the two he seemed much more keen on targeting the governor.
And appearing Tuesday at a newspaper editorial board with Daggett that Corzine skipped, Christie repeatedly noted the governor’s absence—but also went after the independent for his tax proposals.
"We've seen this movie before, and it ends up badly for the taxpayers of New Jersey,” Christie said, comparing Daggett’s property tax plan to that of Corzine.
Christie strategist Mike DuHaime suggested that there might be similar lumping together of Daggett and Corzine at the second and final debate Friday.
“Here are two guys who think the solution to our fiscal problem is to keep raising taxes,” DuHaime said, sounding out potential debate language.
But DuHaime and other top Christie advisers are cagey when asked whether they might go up on TV against Daggett, expressing skepticism about whether he will finish at or above where he’s polling currently.
“I think it’s an inflated vote,” said one Christie adviser, noting that those surveyed would naturally pick an “independent” alternative when polled in a race that features two major-party candidates with significant negative ratings.
“I just think it’s important at this point to focus on this as a two-person race,” said the adviser.
Another Christie strategist said it was preferable to have a chunk of the vote sitting with Daggett rather than swinging back and forth between the Republican and Democrat in a race where the Democrat enjoys both a significant financial and party registration advantage.
“Right now, it does not behoove us to upset the apple cart,” argued this strategist, noting that despite the tightening of the race, Corzine seems to have hit a ceiling of between 39 and 41 percent of the vote.
And Christie has to use his resources wisely because, by virtue of taking public funds, he’s capped at spending a total of $10.9 million and, as of a financial disclosure last week, had already spent $5.4 million.
While Christie still has millions at his disposal in the last 20 days of the race, Corzine’s deep pockets and unlimited spending capability mean that the Republican is somewhat reliant on the well-heeled RGA to keep him competitive on the airwaves.
But after losing a significant lead in the polls and making some tactical moves that national Republicans privately groused about, Christie advisers may not be positioned to complain about the RGA's strategy of taking on Daggett.
Monmouth University pollster Patrick Murray said that Republicans were right to worry about Daggett’s rise, but suggested it’s no certainty that he’ll be a factor on Election Day.
“The first five percent of his vote is probably evenly drawn from both,” said Murray. “But once he got above that, he was drawing from erstwhile Christie voters who were not comfortable with him as an alternative.”
And, Murray added, after Daggett laid out his plan to address the state’s soaring property taxes—the dominant issue for many voters—he became more attractive to those who were dissatisfied at Christie’s lack of a firm proposal on the topic.
Daggett still faces some significant obstacles. He’s got little money to buy TV ads in two of the most expensive markets in the country—Philadelphia and New York—and he has no ground operation to get out the vote.
Further, as both Christie and Corzine advisers point out, the ballot position of New Jersey third-party candidates varies from county to county and they can be overlooked amid a large group of contenders.
Among Corzine advisers, there’s no question about what to do about Daggett—leave him alone.
“Daggett makes our point for us in a lot of ways,” said a Corzine adviser, citing the independent’s attacks on Christie for not offering more specific tax and spending proposals.
Still, Corzine’s senior officials don’t want to see Daggett’s numbers rise much further. The more serious a candidate he becomes, the more the pro-abortion rights and Sierra Club-endorsed Daggett may eat into the kind of center-left voters Corzine needs to eke out a win.