As expected, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie cruised to a blowout victory in his reelection campaign on Tuesday, defeating Democratic state Senator Barbara Buono by more than 22 percent of the vote. While his decisive victory is a triumph for Republicans nationwide, especially blue state Republicans who seek to appeal to more voters, many conservatives outside of New Jersey considered him a public enemy just one year ago.
Superstorm Sandy hit New Jersey just days before the 2012 presidential election, and Gov. Christie, who had stumped for Mitt Romney and other high-profile GOP candidates on the campaign trail, was suddenly seen walking side-by-side with President Obama and praising how the president had handled the storm. As a result, many Republicans blamed Christie for helping the president win reelection. The potential 2016 Republican nominee for president did not even receive an invitation to this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC).
But the people of New Jersey loved what he did. His approval rating soared to 67 percent in November 2012, and it eventually rose to an incredible seventy percent in February 2013, just months after Obama carried the state by more than 17 percentage points. In Tuesday’s election, nearly a third of Democrats voted for him over Buono, and the exit poll showed that, for a Republican, he has massive appeal among women and minorities. A June nationwide poll indicated that he could be the most popular politician in the entire country.
So, after 2012’s trouncing of the GOP, why aren’t more Republicans promoting Christie as a clear frontrunner in 2016? Many on the right subscribe to the idea that compromise means defeat, and that adherence to one’s values (commonly interpreted as appearing more socially conservative) is the way to win elections. A prime example of this strategy’s failure also occurred on Tuesday, when Democrat Terry McAuliffe edged out Republican Ken Cuccinelli in Virginia’s gubernatorial election.
Prior to this year, Virginians had elected a governor from the opposite party of the president in every election since 1977. Virginia’s swing state status has made the Commonwealth somewhat of a national bellwether. This week’s Democratic victory in a contest that should have resulted in a Republican successor to Governor Bob McDonnell may have been clinched more than a year ago.
In the summer of 2012, the State Central Committee of the Republican Party of Virginia decided to select its nominee for governor at a convention instead of holding a primary, making the need to appeal to independent voters unnecessary. The convention’s attendees were comprised of committed conservatives who were willing to travel to the convention site for the day-long event.
Lieutenant Governor Bill Bolling, a more moderate candidate who would certainly fare better than Cuccinelli in a general election, was essentially forced to withdraw his candidacy as a result of this decision. Several of the top Republican donors who supported incumbent Gov. McDonnell kept their wallets shut, largely due to Cuccinelli’s stances and voting record on social issues, and a bitter Lt. Gov. Bolling flat-out refused to endorse him. Consequently, despite his questionable business background, McAuliffe was able to mobilize enough disinterested Democrats to get to the polls in an off-year election and become governor-elect.
Simply holding a primary does not prevent ultra-conservative candidates from winning Republican nominations, and Tuesday’s GOP runoff in Alabama’s First Congressional District was almost a perfect example of this problem. In this week’s lesser-publicized race, establishment Republican Bradley Byrne defeated controversial candidate Dean Young by just six percent of the vote in the solid red district.
Many of the GOP House members who drove the movement to shut down the government over the Affordable Care Act (ACA) hail from districts that, like AL-1, are safely Republican. These districts often have prospective primary challengers, who, like Young, spout extreme rhetoric that resonates well with their constituencies. From a reelection perspective, the uncompromising, far-right stances of incumbents are not just understandable, but would be considered tame by their constituents.
These GOP primaries have caused national public opinion regarding the Republican Party to deteriorate. Polls consistently showed that people blamed Republicans for the federal government shutdown more than Democrats or President Obama. Further, those supporting the shutdown failed in their attempt to stop Obamacare, as essentially nothing regarding the implementation of the ACA was altered or delayed in the shutdown-ending deal.
So Christie, who has remained immensely popular in spite of persistently bad publicity surrounding the GOP, has yet to be fully and enthusiastically embraced by the core of a defeated party that is in desperate need of remodeling and can no longer exclusively appeal to white voters.
Is it because he doesn’t stick to traditional Republican values? Christie has consistently reaffirmed his identity as a conservative despite his state’s left-leaning tendencies, and he has even been called a “strong voice for conservative governance” by Americans for Tax Reform President Grover Norquist, who cited his reduction of unfunded state liabilities. Christie recently dropped his appeal of the New Jersey Supreme Court ruling allowing same-sex marriage, but he did so while restating his personal belief that marriage should be between a man and a woman.
Provided that he decides to actually run for president in 2016, the primary process may, unfortunately for Christie, prove similar to Virginia’s Republican state convention. The Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary project to be winnable opportunities, but the primaries in South Carolina and possibly North Carolina may derail his momentum as candidates are pressured to promote their conservative ideals.
Those who rallied around Rick Santorum in 2012 are likely to rally around a candidate like Ted Cruz in 2016. Cruz, as an outspoken former collegiate national debate champion, would not hesitate to lead the attacks on Christie’s conservative credentials. This expected tendency to move to the right during the Republican primaries is particularly fatal in the YouTube era.
By the time the next cycle begins, Christie may again decline to run. Hillary Clinton, should she decide to officially declare her candidacy, may generate enough excitement as the potential first female president to the point that any Republican candidate would lose in the general election. Perhaps a currently unknown candidate will emerge and take the party by storm.
Regardless of what happens over the next three years, the GOP needs to be publicly enthusiastic about candidates like Christie, not just receptive, if it wants to compete for the presidency in both the near and distant future.
- New Jersey Governor Election Results: Chris Christie Wins Reelection (huffingtonpost.com)