Morris Plains, N.J.
On election eve, Chris Christie has come home to rally a few hundred supporters in Morris County, the place where he was first elected and now lives with his wife, Mary Pat, and their four children.
His reelection is a foregone conclusion, as it has been for months; all that anyone gathered at the Morris County VFW hall wants to talk about is Christie’s likely 2016 presidential campaign. Before the New Jersey governor arrives, I find myself in the back of the room talking to two of his donors, one a personal friend of the governor who is very optimistic that Christie has a lock on the 2016 nomination.
“Nationally, you’ve got the Ted Cruzes of the world, Rand Paul, you’ve got all of these guys that are going to cannibalize each other for that piece of the party,” he tells me. “And there is no other figure out there, with the exception of Jeb Bush, who has this niche in the Republican party.”
The other donor, a former Wall Street trader, doesn’t see it that way. In his view, a Tea Party frenzy has taken over the party and only a conservative purist will win the nomination. “I think a Christie-Bloomberg third-party ticket is more likely than Christie capturing the [Republican] nomination.”
When the governor appears, he gives his supporters a glimpse of what an attractive Republican presidential ticket might look like. Joining him on stage is New Mexico governor Susana Martinez, the only elected Republican from outside the state Christie asked to campaign with him.
When Christie begins to talk, his speech sounds more like an opening statement in a Republican primary than a closing argument in a gubernatorial race. “Our party is looking across the country to say, ‘Can we win again?’ ” Christie declares. “Can we be a party that provides the type of vision and hope for the future that would encourage people to be with us?”
Christie says that Martinez is, like him, “a conservative Republican governor in a blue state who has to decide: Do you want to win the argument or do you want to govern?” Christie’s formulation is a little odd: His success in governing was due in no small part to his impassioned appearances at the over 100 townhalls where he won arguments about the pressing need for reform of pensions and a property tax cap.
What he seems to be saying is that he and Martinez have chosen their battles wisely. “She’s decided, as I have, that what you’re hired to do is to govern, to bring people together, Republicans, Democrats, and independents, and to make principled compromise,” Christie continues. “She’s done that out in New Mexico, which is why she’s so incredibly popular.”
That night Christie and Martinez attended one more campaign rally, in Union City, where 85 percent of residents are Latino and 21 percent earn less than the federal poverty line. The next day, Christie racked up an enormous 22-point victory statewide, winning a majority of Latinos and women. He even won a majority in Union City.
Some chalk up the blowout to Hurricane Sandy, after which Christie’s ratings soared. Mike DuHaime, Christie’s chief strategist, tells me that “the hurricane allowed people to see his leadership in a new light,” but “for 19 straight months before the storm, he had approval ratings over 50 percent.” The last Quinnipiac poll taken before the hurricane showed Christie holding a 16-point lead over Democratic opponent Barbara Buono. Not bad for a governor who had faced millions of dollars in attack ads from public-sector unions.
More than two years out from the 2016 primaries, it’s far from clear that Christie’s message—that he’s the conservative Republican who can win—will carry him to victory. But it’s fair to say that for now, Christie is the GOP frontrunner and a force to be reckoned with in 2016.
Skeptics point to Rudy Giuliani, a popular northeastern Republican who crashed and burned in the 2008 primaries, as a cautionary tale. But Christie is in a much better position than Giuliani was.
First, Christie is more in tune with the Republican party on the issues. Christie gained a moderate label following his embrace of President Obama after Hurricane Sandy devastated New Jersey right before the 2012 presidential election. But before that, Christie was adored by most conservatives for taking on public-sector unions and successfully pushing pension reform and a property tax cap through a Democratic legislature.
The most important policy difference between Christie and Giuliani is that Giuliani was pro-choice on abortion, and a pro-choice Republican has about the same odds of winning the GOP nomination as a pro-life Democrat has of winning his party’s nomination—which is to say close to zero.
“Governor Christie is the first pro-life governor of New Jersey since Roe v. Wade,” DuHaime notes. Christie vetoed taxpayer funding for Planned Parenthood five times, for which he was relentlessly attacked by Buono. He still won female voters by 12 points.
Buono also hammered Christie for vetoing a gay marriage bill, and during an October 15 gubernatorial debate, Christie was asked what he would do if his own child came out as gay. “I would grab them and hug them and tell them I loved them,” Christie replied. “But what I would also tell them is that Dad believes that marriage is between one man and one woman.”
Of course, there will be a lot of Republicans jockeying for the nomination in 2016 who are both fiscal and social conservatives. Christie’s great strength is his larger-than-life personality. Some might find his blunt approach obnoxious, but a great deal more will consider his demeanor a gust of fresh air. Both Christie and Giuliani worked as federal prosecutors, but Christie comes across more as a working-class New Jerseyan than as an executive from Manhattan.
Christie works a room full of voters with ease, chatting up folks about their meals and planting big smooches on the cheeks of his female fans.
“We were talking about how good he looks with the weight loss. Phenomenal,” one waitress at the Peterpank Diner tells me during Christie’s Election Day visit. “I lost like 75, so I was telling him I know what it’s like.”
While Christie’s weight problem is seen as a potential political problem by some (he had to have lap-band surgery this year), it actually serves as a way for him to relate to others and be self-deprecating.
Later, a woman tells Christie she drove many miles just to get a special sandwich called a Fat Owl, which is stuffed with meatballs, mozzarella sticks, and French fries. “Sounds like something I don’t need,” Christie replies.
Christie will face plenty of challenges in 2016. The field will likely be full of political talent, and Christie definitely isn’t a purist. He will have to convince enough Republican primary voters that his deviations from the conservative line on issues like guns, gay rights, and immigration don’t make him an unacceptable choice.
In the past few months, Christie declared support for in-state tuition for the children of illegal immigrants, signed one gun control bill while vetoing others, and signed legislation often described as a ban on “gay conversion” counseling for minors. “The bill does not ban a specific kind of destructive therapy; it is a blanket ban on any licensed counseling professional helping any teenager who does not wish to act on gay (or transgender) desire,” Maggie Gallagher, a leading social conservative, wrote at National Review Online.
But, as Christie might say, do you want to win the argument, or do you want to govern?
It’s also not clear how Christie’s hawkish denunciations of libertarians like Kentucky senator Rand Paul will play out. In the wake of allegations by Edward Snowden about the scope of the NSA’s surveillance programs, Christie said at a July forum in Aspen that libertarian opposition to government surveillance is “a very dangerous thought.”
“These esoteric, intellectual debates—I want them to come to New Jersey and sit across from the widows and the orphans and have that conversation,” he said.
“President Obama has done nothing to change the policies of the Bush administration in the war on terrorism,” Christie added. “And you know why? ’Cause they work.”
Perhaps Christie’s most difficult task will be explaining his decision to expand Medicaid in New Jersey with federal dollars allocated by Obamacare. “He will always do the right thing for the people who elected him,” says one GOP operative who supports Christie.
That argument won’t fly in Republican primaries outside of New Jersey, but running hard against Obamacare and in favor of a reformist agenda just might do the trick.
“Campaigns are never about yesterday. They’re always about tomorrow,” Christie says during his election eve speech in Morris County. “The candidate that people want to vote for is the candidate who credibly and honestly expresses his optimism and has a plan for the future.”
John McCormack is a staff writer at The Weekly Standard.