(CNN) – No Republican candidate was won statewide in New Jersey in 12 years. But with Gov. Jon Corzine - the Democratic incumbent - struggling in the polls, the GOP hopes this year their losing streak will end.
Voters in the Garden State head to the polls today and in the gubernatorial battle, two very different Republican candidates are fighting to face off this November against Corzine.
Since the GOP gubernatorial showdown in New Jersey is the only statewide Republican primary this year, the race has also, to some extent, become a proxy in the nationwide battle between conservatives and moderates for the heart of the Republican party.
All recent polls in New Jersey suggest that former federal prosecutor Chris Christie has a wide lead in the contest. The moderate Republican candidate also has the backing of the state party's establishment. He's facing off against the much more conservative Steve Lonegan, a former three term mayor and small business owner who's running as the candidate of the right and against what he calls the "party bosses."
When it comes to the issues, there's a clear divide. Christie supports gun control, calls for incremental tax overhaul, and, after once supporting abortion rights, now favors some restrictions. Lonegan is a firm believer in gun rights, supports a flat tax on income, and opposes abortion rights.
Christie supporters argue that Lonegan is just too conservative to win a statewide race against Corzine. Recent political history isn't conclusive. A conservative Republican candidate won the 2001 primary but was defeated in the general election. In 2005, a moderate GOP candidate came out on top in the primary but suffered defeat in the November election. The last Republican to win any state-wide contest was former Gov. Christie Todd Whitman, a moderate, who won re-election in 1997.
"This is a pricey state to run in, because of the state's two very expensive media markets, New York City and Philadelphia," says Stuart Rothenberg, editor and publisher of the non-partisan Rothenberg Political Report. "Christie has the resources and the endorsements. Lonegan does not. Christie also has a reputation as a crime fighter, which is an asset."
State Assemblyman Rick Merkt is also on the ballot.
While each state race has its own unique issues and personalities, the New Jersey battle in some ways is a small scale example of the great divide in the Republican party. But in this case, the conservative candidate doesn't have the upper hand.
"There is a division within the Republican party in New Jersey that reflects the larger debate in national GOP circles. But the Garden State races is in some ways unique, because the advantages fall to the moderate candidate," adds Rothenberg. "In this case, the history of statewide losses by GOP candidates and the great desire by state Republicans to win, favors Christie."
While Christie and Lonegan fight it out Tuesday, Corzine will hold a general election kickoff rally. Vice President Joe Biden will join Corzine at the event, in West Orange, New Jersey. Recent polls suggest that a majority of New Jersey voters disapprove of the job he's doing as governor and the surveys suggest that if the election were held today, he might lose to either Cristie or Lonegan.
"In a state where Republicans have fallen off the cliff, Christie has a serious shot at winning," says Rothenberg.
But the election is five months away, giving Corzine time to bounce back, and the governor has the power of incumbency and deep pockets to pay for what could be a very expensive re-election bid.
Republicans would dearly love to score a victory in New Jersey and Virginia, the other state holding a gubernatorial contest. In Virginia, the Democratic Governor, Tim Kaine, is term limited. The GOP hopes winning back a Democratic held governorship in either New Jersey or Virginia, or both, would end the bleeding from 2006 and 2008 and launch Republicans towards victory in the 2010 midterm elections.