New Jersey's gubernatorial election has been playing to the state's usual script so far. Voters, disgusted with the Democratic machine, led by Governor Jon Corzine, flirt with a Republican, in this case former U.S. Attorney Chris Christie. Then comes a nasty, negative campaign. Then liberals remember they hate Republicans even more than they hate the Democrats, who eke out a narrow win and start the process all over again.
“Do you really think Chris Christie would spend money trying to beat me up with these ads that are inaccurate…if their internal poll didn't show some bigger numbers?” asks Daggett?
Chris Daggett, an independent candidate for governor, is looking to break that cycle.
“I believe I’m going to win the race,” he told The Daily Beast in an exclusive interview.
Daggett, who served under President Reagan in the Environmental Protection Agency and later as commissioner of the state's Department of Environmental Protection, has quickly become the top story of the campaign. After a strong debate performance this fall, he has been surging in the polls, garnering 14 percent in the latest Monmouth University/Gannett New Jersey survey despite spending about $1 million, versus about $17 million from the mostly self-financed Corzine and about $5.4 million from Christie. The state’s largest newspaper, the Newark Star-Ledger, boosted his credibility further with a strong endorsement earlier this month. And Daggett's opponents are taking notice: Christie is now running ads against him, scared that he's bleeding votes to the independent.
Daggett's late momentum is drawing parallels to former Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura, who managed to win a close race as a third-party candidate in 1998 and whose top strategist, Bill Hillsman, is now an aide to Daggett. Given the widespread dissatisfaction with the two major-party candidates, some observers have gone beyond declaring him a potential spoiler and are suggesting he could win the race outright with his mix of budget-crunching specifics on tax issues and liberal social positions.
Daggett, for his part, is all too happy to lay out detailed victory scenarios.
“Corzine's been flat for a long time and Christie is going backward,” he said. “My stated poll numbers are somewhere between 14 percent to 18 percent, add the margin of error and they get to the low 20s. Polls historically don't capture independent sentiment well, so I think they're in the mid-20s. Do you really think Chris Christie would spend money trying to beat me up with these ads that are inaccurate and the very things he rails about with Corzine's negative campaign if their internal poll didn't show some bigger numbers? I combine all those factors with the fact I need only 34 percent or 35 percent in a tight race since there's no runoff in New Jersey.”
He added that he doesn't think, as some pollsters have argued, that he's taking votes disproportionately from Christie.
“You can make a poll say anything you want it to,” he said—apparently without irony.
Nor does he care if he indirectly causes either candidate to win: “It's pretty much the same.”
New Jersey's gubernatorial race has focused almost entirely on one issue: taxes. Christie made headway against Corzine by attacking him for not reducing property taxes while in office. Corzine in turn, has gained ground on Christie by pointing out that his own plan to cut property taxes is short in details on how he would offset the cost, especially given the economic downturn, which has left New Jersey with a projected $8 billion budget deficit next year and 9.8 percent unemployment.
With neither candidate earning voters' trust on the issue, Daggett has centered his campaign on his own tax plan, a wonkier, more detailed scheme in which he would cut property taxes and then raise taxes on high-end services like accountants' fees to pay for it. Under Daggett's plan, the state would also employ a new approach to reducing spending: municipalities that failed to keep their budgets in line with inflation would not receive their property tax cut.
Despite being a former Republican, Daggett says he became “extraordinarily disillusioned and disappointed by both parties,” and his platform bears little relation to the current GOP. His record on the environment earned him the Sierra Club's endorsement and he is pro-choice and pro-gay marriage.
While taxes have helped give Daggett his biggest opening on the policy side, the race has drawn the most attention outside the state for its brutal negative campaigning. Recently, much of the campaign coverage has focused on Corzine's alleged attacks on the overweight Christie's girth, which included an ad saying Christie “threw his weight around” to evade a traffic ticket while showing a less-than-flattering slow-motion shot of the candidate exiting a car. Corzine's attacks have also helped undermine Christie's top issue—ethics—by highlighting incidents like the aforementioned 2002 accident in which Christie identified himself as a U.S. Attorney to an officer after running into a motorcyclist and managed to get away without consequence. The negative campaign has helped keep Corzine in close contention despite pathetic approval ratings—33 percent in the latest New York Times poll.
So far Christie has more aggressively targeted Daggett, accusing him of insufficiently committing himself to cutting taxes, while Corzine has even praised him at times in an attempt to play him off against Christie. In their second debate, Corzine said that “At least [Daggett] has a plan, he doesn’t have a fantasy,” a shot at Christie's tax proposals.
“It's sort of par for the course,” Daggett said of the campaign's negative tone. “Unfortunately we seem to have gotten to the point where it's shameful, basically. It's being done primarily to drive down the vote: Christie wants to drive it down because he figures if it's low turnout, he'll win...Corzine thinks if he drives down the vote his base will carry the day, because Democrats outnumber Republicans. They forget that independents outnumber both by a good margin.” New Jersey's electorate include about 1.7 million Democrats, 1 million Republicans and 2.3 million unaffiliated voters.
The race is taking a turn toward national politics this week, however, as the big Democratic guns are coming to town to campaign for Corzine. Vice President Joe Biden made an appearance in Edison on Monday, President Obama is holding a rally on Wednesday, and former President Clinton is scheduled to campaign on Corzine's behalf as well. With Obama popular in New Jersey and the Republican brand weak, the campaign is counting on national factors to deliver the fatal blow to Christie's faltering campaign.
Daggett says he expects the high-profile appearances to have little effect on the campaign.
“Jon Corzine is a very unpopular governor and deservedly so,” Daggett told The Daily Beast. “While it's wonderful to get the attention of some national leaders, they're not going to determine the outcome.”
As for his own take on Obama, Daggett walks a careful line, criticizing the stimulus bill for containing too much pork, but overall praising the president for doing “a credible job.”
“I think he took awhile to get his sea legs because it's difficult,” he said. “He hasn't managed anything in his life to speak of and suddenly he's taking on the presidency of the country—I think he hasn't done a bad job.”
Benjamin Sarlin is a reporter for The Daily Beast. He previously covered New York City politics for The New York Sun and has worked for talkingpointsmemo.com.