WNYC's Bob Hennelly is an award-winning investigative journalist. While at WNYC he has reported on a wide gamut of major public policy questions ranging from immigration and homeland security to power outages and utility mergers.
Not long ago, a Republican Governor elected just after the Obama landslide in a “blue” state painted a line in the sand.
In a big-union state, he took on the unions. In a state formed by rail transportation, he killed a big federal rail project and sent huge sums back to the federal government. The more the unions howled, the happier he seemed poking sharp sticks in their eyes.
A year before Scott Walker emerged in Wisconsin, Chris Christie rose to prominence in New Jersey, prototyping the same themes. And if Walker won big last night, so did Chris Christie, who stumped for Walker, raised funds, and regularly appeared on television for Walker – improving his own national ambitions.
"There is affirmation for Chris Christie here no doubt," said Peter Woolley, who runs Fairleigh Dickinson's Public Mind Poll. "It is another warning shot to public employees. Both Governors are making major reform to public employee pensions, benefits and even the bargaining process -- and voters are buying it."
"Public employee households voted two to one against Walker and in New Jersey two to one against Christie," Woolley added. "So in both states 25 percent to a third of public employee households agree with these reforms."
That may be a bitter pill for unions to swallow.
Not long into Christie's tenure, faced with a massive multi-billion dollar budget gap, the Governor asked the teacher's union to accept a pay freeze so local school districts could save their new hires from pink slips.
The New Jersey Education Association dismissed Christie out of hand. From than on, the union found itself portrayed as self-serving and out of touch despite the fact that their union was made up of public servants who were also beleaguered property tax payers.
In his first year in office, after the teachers union fracas, Christie cancelled a commuter train tunnel under the Hudson River, at the time the biggest public transit project underway in the nation. Christie returned almost $3 billion to the federal government, citing the potential for cost overruns for New Jersey taxpayers.
A year later, Scott Walker returned nearly $1 billion to the federal government after cancelling a high-speed rail project that was part of the federal stimulus bill. Walker said the railway wouldn’t be used, and would siphon funds from “our roads.”
Both Walker and Christie were sounding a unified theme: public projects were siphoning taxpayer dollars from hard-working taxpayers. Collective enterprises -- unions, big transit projects -- were roadblocks to personal success.
Larry Sabato, who leads the University of Virginia's Center For Politics assessed it this way: the public unions have a hard time getting a sense of where the rest of the electorate finds itself in a period of prolonged stagnant private sector wage growth. Instead, voters "compare the salary of public employees to their own as well as the benefit packages and they see they get less in private enterprise," Sabato said. And on top of that "they are paying taxes" to sustain the inequity they perceive.
It's an argument that appeals even to some union households, and has allowed Walker and Christie to gain a toehold.
Still, Sabato argues it should come as no surprise that President Obama continues to track well in both Wisconsin and New Jersey despite hard charging GOP Governors whose popularity remains on the upswing despite a union outcry.
"The long and short of it is there are cross-over voters, people who favor President Obama AND want a Governor they see as strict and parsimonious with their money," Sabato said.
Years ago they were called Reagan Democrats -- and they voted for President Obama in 2008.
Part of what's giving the Republican Governors like Christie and Walker the chance to lead is the lack of action out of Washington on entitlement reform. Federal politicians avoid talking about raising the retirement age to reflect the reality people on average are living longer than when Social Security was first established.
Sabato says Governors have no such luxury.
"And Governors leading states in fiscal distress have no choice but to take on pension issues----so they're first to be hit with recalls and the first to get a pat on the back when they prevail."
That means the leadership luster around Christie and Walker is not necessarily transferable to the national GOP or former Governor Romney's bid for the Presidency. "The fact that Christie and Walker are both popular does not mean the Republican Party is as strong as Christie and Walker," Sabato said. "Actually the national brand is lagging both Governors."