Commentary Magazine


Topic: New Jersey governor’s race

Can the Tea Party Ever Accept Christie?

Yesterday’s exit polls from New Jersey won’t easily be forgotten. They will be cited and repeated endlessly by pundits and Governor Chris Christie’s supporters to bolster his case for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016. Any Republican who can get 60 percent of the vote in a blue state is bound to become the subject of presidential speculation. But when a Republican who is pro-life and has fought a running battle with labor unions and Democrats over taxes and budgets does so, he parachutes into the first tier of any discussion of future candidates. That Christie did this while winning a shocking 57 percent of the women’s vote (against a female opponent), 51 percent of Hispanics and 21 percent of African-Americans gives him an almost inarguable case for his electability.

But as the emails and tweets that poured in almost as soon as the results were known showed, there is one sector of the Republican Party that isn’t singing hosannas about Christie’s ability to make inroads in constituencies that Republicans have been losing in recent years. Self-described Tea Partiers and other conservatives were having none of it. As far as they were concerned, the hoopla about Christie’s win was nothing more than the GOP “establishment” anointing another front-runner who was certain to lose in the same manner as previous moderate nominees like John McCain and Mitt Romney. Others were expressing disgust and claiming the party’s base would abandon Christie in 2016, something that would offset his ability to win the votes of independents and moderate Democrats. In their words, Christie was nothing more than a no-good RINO, whose nomination would mark another Republican betrayal of conservatives.

These comments underlined the cautionary remarks being made about Christie’s prospective candidacy this morning. He may be a formidable general-election candidate, but his ability to win Republican primaries remains an open question. Yet rather than merely accepting this piece of conventional wisdom, it might be appropriate to ask why it is that the right is so mad at Christie and whether he can gradually win their support, if not affection, over the course of the next three years.

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Yesterday’s exit polls from New Jersey won’t easily be forgotten. They will be cited and repeated endlessly by pundits and Governor Chris Christie’s supporters to bolster his case for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016. Any Republican who can get 60 percent of the vote in a blue state is bound to become the subject of presidential speculation. But when a Republican who is pro-life and has fought a running battle with labor unions and Democrats over taxes and budgets does so, he parachutes into the first tier of any discussion of future candidates. That Christie did this while winning a shocking 57 percent of the women’s vote (against a female opponent), 51 percent of Hispanics and 21 percent of African-Americans gives him an almost inarguable case for his electability.

But as the emails and tweets that poured in almost as soon as the results were known showed, there is one sector of the Republican Party that isn’t singing hosannas about Christie’s ability to make inroads in constituencies that Republicans have been losing in recent years. Self-described Tea Partiers and other conservatives were having none of it. As far as they were concerned, the hoopla about Christie’s win was nothing more than the GOP “establishment” anointing another front-runner who was certain to lose in the same manner as previous moderate nominees like John McCain and Mitt Romney. Others were expressing disgust and claiming the party’s base would abandon Christie in 2016, something that would offset his ability to win the votes of independents and moderate Democrats. In their words, Christie was nothing more than a no-good RINO, whose nomination would mark another Republican betrayal of conservatives.

These comments underlined the cautionary remarks being made about Christie’s prospective candidacy this morning. He may be a formidable general-election candidate, but his ability to win Republican primaries remains an open question. Yet rather than merely accepting this piece of conventional wisdom, it might be appropriate to ask why it is that the right is so mad at Christie and whether he can gradually win their support, if not affection, over the course of the next three years.

If we’re looking for ideological differences, it’s hard to pin down what has gotten the Tea Party’s goat about Christie.

Unlike most successful blue-state Republicans, Christie is not a liberal on social issues. He’s pro-life and against gay marriage. And as far as fiscal issues are concerned—supposedly the core issue motivating the Tea Party—he seems to be one of them. He was elected on a platform calling for challenging the status quo on state spending and the influence of municipal and state employee unions and he has followed through on his promises. And though due to the fact that he had to work with a Democratic legislature he wasn’t able to push as far on that issue as Wisconsin’s Scott Walker, he has his own list of triumphs that nearly match those won by that Tea Party idol. He defied the unions as well as the federal government to nix a tunnel project that would have sunk the state further in debt.

He did challenge Rand Paul and libertarians on foreign policy and security issues this past summer. But the belief that all Tea Partiers—who were mobilized to action by anger about ObamaCare and the stimulus, not by opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan or the war on Islamist terror—are uncomfortable with Christie’s support for a traditional strong Republican position on foreign policy and against isolationism is a dubious assumption.

As for immigration, something that is a key Tea Party issue, Christie is vulnerable as he now supports a New Jersey version of the DREAM Act and has reversed his position and endorsed an in-state tuition discount to illegals. But he has nowhere near the exposure on that issue as Marco Rubio. This will be one issue to watch to see if he evolves more toward a pro-immigration reform position or reverts to a more popular (at least as far as Republicans are concerned) opposition to liberalizing the system.

What, then, are they really mad about?

It starts with Christie’s embrace of President Obama in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy last year, a move that did the governor a world of political good at home but did nothing to help Mitt Romney’s hopes of an upset. That, along with a Republican National Convention speech that seemed to be all about Christie’s virtues rather than singing Romney’s praises, created a narrative in which the governor is dismissed by the right as a self-seeking opportunist who betrayed his party. That may be true, but if the party is looking for a presidential candidate who isn’t a ruthless opportunist, they need to reject virtually every other presumed candidate, including a Tea Party favorite like Ted Cruz.

Others dig deeper and claim he isn’t a true social conservative because although he opposed gay marriage, he eventually bowed to reality and gave up a hopeless legal appeal when his state Supreme Court indicated it would be rejected. Others claim his approval of a law banning so-called “conversion therapy” of gays also shows he’s a RINO. In other words, we’re talking about a conservative who has pushed the boundaries in his own state without ever betraying his principles to win liberal votes (as Romney did with the pro-abortion stand he adopted while running for office in Massachusetts) but didn’t bow to every dictate of the right.

More to the point, some on the right just don’t like the can-do credo he espouses about making government work even if it means working with Democrats. In this season of government shutdowns, which he rightly opposed, some see this as evidence of a lack of principle, not pragmatism. But what they forget is that Christie’s vaunted bipartisanship operated from a position of strength in which he forced Democrats to operate within his frame of reference of reform, not a weak refusal to upset the applecart.

As for the claim that Christie is yet another moderate Republican who can achieve nothing more than a respectable loss in the manner of McCain or Romney, that seems another dubious assumption. Neither McCain nor Romney was Christie’s equal as a communicator and especially as a retail politician. Nor he is another Northeastern Republican doomed to failure in GOP primaries like Giuliani, whose loss was foreordained by his pro-abortion stand.

There are good reasons to doubt whether Christie can win in 2016. As much as he’s been in the limelight, he has never been tested on the national stage before the way he will be if he runs for president. His thin skin and irascible tough-guy personality is part of his unique everyman charm, but that may not wear as well on a presidential candidate as it does on a governor of New Jersey. There are also the unanswered questions about his health that, despite his disclaimers, cannot be entirely dismissed.

But if we’re looking for reasons why Tea Partiers cannot abide Christie, we have to come to grips with the fact that most of this is more about atmospherics than actual disagreements. While his attitude may turn off some conservatives, his ability to win elections as a conservative must open up for them the possibility that this unique politician may be a chance for Republicans to reverse the liberal tide that Obama has been riding the last several years. As of the moment, that is just speculation. But one suspects that as we get closer to 2016, more conservatives will come to the conclusion that they much prefer dealing with his faults than contemplating eight years of a Hillary Clinton presidency.

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Don’t Draw Firm Lessons From NJ and VA

The narrative of tomorrow’s off-year election seems already to be set. In New Jersey, Chris Christie will win a landslide that will confirm his status as a 2016 presidential contender and a potential centrist model for Republican victories in the future. But in Virginia’s gubernatorial race, the impending defeat of Ken Cuccinelli by veteran Democratic fundraiser Terry McAuliffe is supposed to teach the GOP the opposite lesson: that nominating a Tea Party conservative is a death wish that, if applied in other swing states, is a certain guarantee of future disaster.

On the surface, there’s really no arguing with the obvious lessons coming out of these two states. Christie’s ability to win the affection of a broad cross-section of voters in blue New Jersey has turned him from an unlikely underdog winner, when he first beat Jon Corzine for governor in 2009, to a political juggernaut. On the other hand, Cuccinelli has never been able to live down the extremist tag that Democrats labeled him with and it’s unlikely that even the last week’s ObamaCare fiasco will be enough to make that election a close call, let alone allow him to win. But like all generalizations about politics, those drawn from New Jersey and Virginia are as likely to mislead us as they are to provide insight. Those looking to draw firm conclusions about what the GOP should do in 2014, let alone in 2016, should be hesitant about drawing hard and fast rules from these races.

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The narrative of tomorrow’s off-year election seems already to be set. In New Jersey, Chris Christie will win a landslide that will confirm his status as a 2016 presidential contender and a potential centrist model for Republican victories in the future. But in Virginia’s gubernatorial race, the impending defeat of Ken Cuccinelli by veteran Democratic fundraiser Terry McAuliffe is supposed to teach the GOP the opposite lesson: that nominating a Tea Party conservative is a death wish that, if applied in other swing states, is a certain guarantee of future disaster.

On the surface, there’s really no arguing with the obvious lessons coming out of these two states. Christie’s ability to win the affection of a broad cross-section of voters in blue New Jersey has turned him from an unlikely underdog winner, when he first beat Jon Corzine for governor in 2009, to a political juggernaut. On the other hand, Cuccinelli has never been able to live down the extremist tag that Democrats labeled him with and it’s unlikely that even the last week’s ObamaCare fiasco will be enough to make that election a close call, let alone allow him to win. But like all generalizations about politics, those drawn from New Jersey and Virginia are as likely to mislead us as they are to provide insight. Those looking to draw firm conclusions about what the GOP should do in 2014, let alone in 2016, should be hesitant about drawing hard and fast rules from these races.

As I wrote yesterday, Christie believes his party should learn from what he’s accomplished in New Jersey. That he hopes that will convince Republicans to nominate him for president is also not a secret. And they would be crazy not to think seriously about how he has managed to govern as a conservative yet project an independent image. That provides him with a powerful argument to be the GOP standard-bearer in 2016. But anyone looking to duplicate Chris Christie’s success elsewhere needs to understand that he is a unique political character in a specific circumstance that isn’t likely to be found elsewhere.

It needs to be understood that despite all the talk about Christie’s centrism, much of that has more to do with atmospherics than political principles. New Jersey Democrats have been complaining for years that Christie is actually quite conservative, and they’re right. Far from being the poster child for “No Labels” centrism, Christie has been willing to work with Democrats in Trenton but mostly on his terms. If he has become the bête noire of GOP conservatives it’s been because of his embrace of President Obama after Hurricane Sandy last year and his attacks on House Republicans over their stalling on an aid bill, not because of any heresy on conservative principle. Both on social issues like abortion and Tea Party core interests like reducing the size of government and fighting the power of unions, Christie fits in well with the rest of his party.

He’s gotten away with it not because citizens of the Garden State think he’s a closet liberal but because of the appeal of his personality and governing style. It’s an open question as to whether that brusque approach will play as well on the national stage as it has in New Jersey. But suffice it to say that I doubt a Republican looking to have that success in a different sort of state could use the same playbook. Though pundits will search for one, there’s no point looking for another Christie.

As for Virginia, even conservatives have to concede that Cuccinelli has been more vulnerable to liberal attacks than a more vanilla Republican might have been. But those who see him as the 2013 version of Todd Akin are being unfair. He’s actually made no real gaffes that could be used to brand him as an extremist. But he has been on the receiving end of an almost unprecedented Democratic blitz that sought to demonize him. As Politico reported over the weekend, McAuliffe has been the beneficiary of a fundraising advantage that few Democrats not named Clinton or Obama have enjoyed in recent decades. Combined with a government shutdown that disproportionately affected Virginians, the scandal surrounding the GOP incumbent in Richmond, and the demographic shifts that have already converted the commonwealth from a Republican state to one that might better be described as Democrat-leaning rather than a swing state, doomed Cuccinelli. So while it’s fair for Republicans to speculate whether someone else might have done better, it’s difficult to argue that anyone else would have been in that much stronger a position.

The bottom line here is that political science is not science. The lessons of New Jersey and Virginia are not to be ignored but they are, like almost all electoral scenarios, specific to particular personalities and circumstances. Neither the victory in one state nor the likely defeat in the other can provide Republicans with a foolproof pattern for success.

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Christie in Trouble? He’s in the Catbird Seat

Conventional wisdom tells us that when we get lemons we should make lemonade, and that is exactly what the mainstream liberal media is doing today as they contemplate the loss of a Democratic seat in the Senate with the death of Frank Lautenberg. This gives New Jersey Governor Chris Christie the chance to do what every governor longs for: appoint a U.S. senator. Yet if you read the New York Times today, you’d think Christie was the real victim of this turn of events. The headline on the story: “Death of Senator Places Christie in Difficult Spot” captures the gist of the piece, the conceit of which is the premise that by being forced to name a Republican to sit in the Senate, the governor has been given a hopeless choice between lessening his chances for re-election this November or throwing away any hope of being the GOP presidential nominee in 2016. The Washington Post is a bit less dire when it describes his dilemma as a “tough choice.”

Yet while Christie does have a complex set of options before him, the idea that he is in any danger is absurd. Rather than being pushed into a corner, Christie is sitting pretty. There is little chance that any of the possible choices he has been given could possibly endanger his re-election. Nor is it likely that he will pick anyone that will so embitter national Republicans as to diminish his chances in 2016. What Christie does have is the chance to further enhance his power and influence, both locally and nationally. Far from hurting Christie, Lautenberg’s death 17 months before his seat would have been up for grabs in the midterm elections focuses the political world on the governor, and that is exactly what he likes.

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Conventional wisdom tells us that when we get lemons we should make lemonade, and that is exactly what the mainstream liberal media is doing today as they contemplate the loss of a Democratic seat in the Senate with the death of Frank Lautenberg. This gives New Jersey Governor Chris Christie the chance to do what every governor longs for: appoint a U.S. senator. Yet if you read the New York Times today, you’d think Christie was the real victim of this turn of events. The headline on the story: “Death of Senator Places Christie in Difficult Spot” captures the gist of the piece, the conceit of which is the premise that by being forced to name a Republican to sit in the Senate, the governor has been given a hopeless choice between lessening his chances for re-election this November or throwing away any hope of being the GOP presidential nominee in 2016. The Washington Post is a bit less dire when it describes his dilemma as a “tough choice.”

Yet while Christie does have a complex set of options before him, the idea that he is in any danger is absurd. Rather than being pushed into a corner, Christie is sitting pretty. There is little chance that any of the possible choices he has been given could possibly endanger his re-election. Nor is it likely that he will pick anyone that will so embitter national Republicans as to diminish his chances in 2016. What Christie does have is the chance to further enhance his power and influence, both locally and nationally. Far from hurting Christie, Lautenberg’s death 17 months before his seat would have been up for grabs in the midterm elections focuses the political world on the governor, and that is exactly what he likes.

It’s true that choosing a senator makes the person deciding the appointment one friend—the nominee—and a lot of enemies in all the people who aren’t picked. But the New Jersey Republican Party is not a team of equals. Christie’s popularity and power dwarfs that of everyone else. At this point he can pick anyone he wants and need fear no repercussions at home.

Nor is there much chance that national conservatives will hold it against him if he nominates a moderate Republican since there really aren’t very many conservatives of stature in the state to choose from. Indeed, as much as many conservatives around the nation resent Christie for his dalliances with President Obama and criticism of the Republican leadership in the House of Representatives, the governor is, in fact, very much a conservative in the context of New Jersey politics. So long as Christie picks someone who will vote with the Senate GOP caucus for as long as they are in the seat, he won’t suffer for it.

The question of the timing of the special election to replace Lautenberg is tricky and could potentially create some problems for Christie, who is up for re-election this year. The Republicans would prefer to hold the election in 2014 and let Christie’s pick hold the seat for a year and a half, but Christie won’t do anything to cloud his image in this way. If the Senate vote is held this November, it raises the possibility that a groundswell for popular Newark Mayor Corey Booker—the likely Democratic nominee—could increase turnout and make it harder for Christie to win by a landslide or use his coattails to help the GOP make big gains in the New Jersey legislature. But if the two elections are held together it’s the Democrats who should worry. It’s been a few decades since a Republican won a Senate seat in New Jersey, but having a political dynamo like Christie with strong bipartisan support gives the GOP its best chance to win an upset. If Christie picks an attractive candidate to run with him, Democrats have to know they will be in for a much tougher fight than if the governor wasn’t on the ballot. If the election is held at another time, no one will blame Christie if the Democrats win in what is a very blue seat.

Far from hurting the governor, his choice gives him another opportunity to demonstrate his political mastery over his state. Whether his choice holds the seat or not, a good pick who is able to run a competitive campaign will only make Christie look good. Moreover, the process that will play out now will give the public another opportunity to see Christie at his best. Just as the chaotic manner with which former New York Governor David Patterson chose Kirsten Gillibrand to the Senate to replace Hillary Clinton in 2009 showed what a lousy executive he was, a sober and well-thought out selection process followed by a reasonable pick of a political ally will demonstrate Christie’s ability to lead.

Though liberals are claiming today that Lautenberg’s death creates a headache for Christie, that’s just spin. The potential gains for him far outweigh the possible losses. Barring his pick going completely off the rails in office, Christie’s choices are all good and the national focus on Trenton only enhances his national standing as one of his party’s leading figures. The odds are, he won’t hurt himself in any way and will help his party at home and in Washington.

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Christie’s Ratings May Discourage Booker

The New Jersey governor’s race looked to be the only highlight of an otherwise barren slate of election contests in 2013. Incumbent Chris Christie is a GOP and YouTube star, but he had made a lot of enemies in his four years in office. More importantly, the Democrats have their own rising superstar in Newark Mayor Cory Booker, who seemed likely to be able to give Christie a stiff challenge. But after the latest round of polling of Garden State voters, Booker may be thinking that it might be smarter to wait another year and try for a Senate seat.

With the governor’s efforts to help the state recover from Hurricane Sandy and his controversial embrace of President Obama fresh in their minds, the latest Quinnipiac University poll shows Christie with an astonishing 72 percent approval rating. The numbers are more convincing when you break them down, as even Democrats support the governor’s performance by a 52-39 percent margin. Christie is given the thumbs-up from every demographic group including independents (77 percent), women (70 percent), blacks (55 percent) and Hispanics (66 percent).

While these numbers are bound to come down, any expectation that Christie’s union foes will be able to take their revenge on him this year must be considered unlikely. That means Booker may decide that a gubernatorial run would be a mistake that could derail a seemingly bright political future.

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The New Jersey governor’s race looked to be the only highlight of an otherwise barren slate of election contests in 2013. Incumbent Chris Christie is a GOP and YouTube star, but he had made a lot of enemies in his four years in office. More importantly, the Democrats have their own rising superstar in Newark Mayor Cory Booker, who seemed likely to be able to give Christie a stiff challenge. But after the latest round of polling of Garden State voters, Booker may be thinking that it might be smarter to wait another year and try for a Senate seat.

With the governor’s efforts to help the state recover from Hurricane Sandy and his controversial embrace of President Obama fresh in their minds, the latest Quinnipiac University poll shows Christie with an astonishing 72 percent approval rating. The numbers are more convincing when you break them down, as even Democrats support the governor’s performance by a 52-39 percent margin. Christie is given the thumbs-up from every demographic group including independents (77 percent), women (70 percent), blacks (55 percent) and Hispanics (66 percent).

While these numbers are bound to come down, any expectation that Christie’s union foes will be able to take their revenge on him this year must be considered unlikely. That means Booker may decide that a gubernatorial run would be a mistake that could derail a seemingly bright political future.

Democrats had hoped that once the governor’s initial successes in the legislature were in the past, they would be able to turn Christie’s tough-guy persona into a weakness rather than strength. But that hasn’t happened, as his abrasive governing style has won more cheers than jeers.

Christie’s obvious interest in the 2016 Republican presidential nomination might also have been a drawback for voters, but that also doesn’t seem to be hurting him. Given that even the start of a presidential run wouldn’t come until he was more than a year into his second term, it’s hard to argue that Christie is using Trenton as a stepping stone to the White House.

More important, that embrace of Obama that so rankled Republicans around the nation is playing very well in this very blue state. Indeed, the bitter criticism he has taken for his fulsome praise of the president in the last week of the 2012 campaign actually helps Christie’s chances to be re-elected even if it diminishes his appeal among Republicans. Though it can be argued that Christie’s response to the federal help that arrived in the wake of the hurricane was emotional rather than calculated, his gesture was exactly what he needed to establish himself in the eyes of New Jersey voters as a man who rose above politics in a crisis.

Though Booker may hanker after the governor’s seat, this ought to alert him to the fact that 2013 may not be a very good year for New Jersey Democrats, especially the Democrat who will be facing Christie. In 2014, Senator Frank Lautenberg will turn 90 and unless he decides to try to challenge Strom Thurmond’s age record, there is a good chance he will retire. Though the line of Democrats hoping to win what should be a safe seat will be long, Booker would be at the head of the list. Though he strikes me as the sort of person who would rather run something than spend his life in a talking shop like the Senate, that would seem to be the wiser choice for Booker right now.

Whether Christie can parlay a triumph next year into a credible presidential run is a question for another day. But whatever Booker’s decision turns out to be, Christie must be considered a solid favorite to be re-elected.

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