Christie's re-election bid in New Jersey tests themes for a 2016 presidential run

Holly Bailey
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New Jersey Governor Chris Christie attends the Hurricane Sandy New Jersey Relief Fund Press Conference at Sayreville Borough Hall in New Jersey (Michael Loccisano/Getty Images)

With less than three weeks to go before New Jersey's gubernatorial election, Republican Chris Christie  has been furiously campaigning — but not just against his Democratic opponent, Barbara Buono.

The famously outspoken Christie, already looking ahead to a possible 2016 presidential bid, has turned his re-election campaign into a road show lambasting lawmakers in Washington. He's blasting everyone — notably other Republicans, some of whom could be Christie's primary opponents — for their role in the “political brinkmanship” and recklessness that led to the government shutdown.

“With what we see going on in Washington, D.C., right now, they could use a dose of some New Jersey common sense,” Christie said at a recent campaign rally in Palmyra, N.J. “Notice I said New Jersey common sense, not Republican common sense or Democrat common sense.”

Christie has been unsparing in his critique of Washington, accusing lawmakers of both parties of being “irresponsible” and “monkeying around” with the country’s future in their handling of the shutdown, which lawmakers voted to end on Wednesday. At the same time, Christie has seized the moment to not-so-subtly contrast what he’s criticized as Washington’s “awful partisanship” to his own blunt, do-whatever-it-takes leadership style in New Jersey, a largely blue state where he has successfully worked with the heavily Democratic state Legislature on divisive issues like education and pension reform.

“If we can do it here, with the angry, nasty people we have in New Jersey, for God’s sake, you can do it anywhere,” Christie declared at a campaign stop in Red Bank, N.J.

Christie might be one of the few Republicans who might benefit from the shutdown, as polling shows the public largely blaming GOP lawmakers for the crisis. That could potentially undermine a number of Christie's likely 2016 opponents, including Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Ted Cruz of Texas. Cruz personally led the procedural efforts that led to the shutdown.

“It's a perfect storm, and Chris Christie is riding a surf board,” said Mark McKinnon, a former strategist for President George W. Bush and John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign. “It's like he's the only adult in elected office these days.”

The shutdown came at a pivotal moment for Christie, who seems to be benefiting from a confluence of events that could give him a political advantage as he considers a possible White House run.

On Oct. 29, the nation will mark the first anniversary of Superstorm Sandy, which devastated New Jersey and established Christie as a national political leader willing to buck his own party for the good of his state. Christie was widely criticized by other Republicans when he toured the Jersey shore with President Barack Obama just days before the 2012 presidential election, and again when he trashed House GOP lawmakers for dragging their feet on voting in favor of a storm aid package.

Christie’s handling of Sandy sent his approval ratings soaring and has helped make his bid for a second term appear to be a sure thing. Polls for months have shown him leading Buono, a state senator, by more than 20 points ahead of the Nov. 6 election.

It’s a margin that hasn’t come to Christie accidentally. He's also spent millions of dollars on television ads trashing Buono as a partisan, tax-raising Democrat unwilling to compromise. At the same time, Christie has assembled a broad coalition of support from state Democratic lawmakers, unions and other groups that Republican candidates often struggle to attract.

A recent Monmouth University poll found him leading Buono among women (57 percent to 35 percent) and Hispanics (50 percent to 44 percent) — two voting blocs that usually support Democratic candidates. And Christie’s campaign is hoping to expand those margins even further. It wants to establish momentum for his potential 2016 presidential bid and allow Christie to argue that he’s the only likely GOP candidate who can win both red states and blue states and appeal to voters crucial to the party's effort to win back the White House.

Christie has not tried to conceal his White House ambitions. In two televised debates with Buono, Christie admitted he was considering a bid for the GOP nomination — bluntly conceding that he might not serve out a full gubernatorial term weeks before New Jersey residents even cast a vote in the race. But he insisted his presidential ambitions wouldn’t impede his ability to do his job if re-elected. “I can walk and chew gum at the same time,” Christie said at the first debate. “I can do this job and also deal with my future, and that’s what I will do.”

But that hasn’t damaged Christie with voters — unlike Cory Booker, the Newark mayor who won a special election on Wednesday to replace the late New Jersey Sen. Frank Lautenberg. Booker's national ambitions seemed to alienate some voters, according to polls. Monmouth University political scientist Patrick Murray says Christie has seemed to grow even more popular with New Jersey voters in recent months — even those who disagree with him on issues like abortion rights and same-sex marriage, which Christie opposes.

“None of it sticks to him. Voters are grading Christie more on a sense of leadership than any specific policy position,” Murray said. “So all the media attention on his national ambitions helps feed that perception of being a leader rather than detract from it.”

But the major unknown is whether Christie can translate that buzz into being a legitimate force in the 2016 Republican primaries, where the party's most conservative voters typically hold sway. “He’s got a huge tailwind, and the question is what is he going to do with it?” longtime Republican strategist Ed Rogers said. “What does he do with this halo around him? What does he do with this momentum?

“Right now, everything is good for him. Most of his rivals are sullied by what’s going on in Washington. He’s about to be re-elected in a blue state. He’s the symbol right now of Republicans that can govern,” Rogers added. “But there is such a thing as peaking too soon.”

While Christie’s positions could play well in a general election, the GOP nominating contest will present a far greater challenge. Tea party members and social conservatives in early voting states like Iowa and South Carolina aren't likely to forget Christie's praise for Obama during Sandy, and they likely don’t appreciate his criticism of other Republicans over the government shutdown, which many conservative voters supported.

Some have already likened Christie to former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, another blue state Republican whose 2008 nomination bid never caught on because of a lack of support from social conservatives. But Christie is more socially conservative than Giuliani, who supported abortion rights.

Christie’s overall governing philosophy seems to be aligned with some party leaders and the Republican National Committee who argued in the aftermath of Mitt Romney’s loss to Obama in 2012 that the GOP needed to moderate some of its positions, including on immigration and social issues like gay rights, to appeal to moderates, women and minorities. But the conservative wing of the party has ignored those suggestions and has continued to be the major driver of policy in the nation’s capital.

Christie is gambling that his record of actually getting things done will trump that influence and help him among Republicans who are fed up with Washington. Onstage for his final debate with Buono this week, Christie suggested it was possible for Republicans to support candidates they didn’t totally agree with.

“That’s part of the strength of any political party. People don’t have to agree on everything,” Christie said. “The bigger issue is what are we doing down there in Washington, D.C., with the type of partisanship that they have there?” He used the moment to emphasize his ability to work across the aisle, adding, “Even with divided government ... we have brought people together.”