His reelection fight might be over, but the real race is just beginning for New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, as he prepares to weave a careful path to the 2016 presidential nomination.
With a blowout win under his belt Tuesday night, Christie has solid proof he can win where many Republicans haven’t been able to: among female and minority voters.
Preliminary exit polling showed him improving his showing among those key demographic groups. He increased his share of the female vote by 11 percent from 2009, the black vote by 12 percent and the Hispanic vote by 13 percent.
He also gained donations from Democrats, including some affiliated with liberal financier George Soros and donors of President Obama.
His campaign even drew praise from a frequent critic — Iowa conservative leader Bob Vander Plaats, who has railed against Christie for not fighting a court decision that legalized gay marriage in New Jersey.
“I think people like his boldness, being up-front and confronting issues — in particular that of the unions and education in the state of New Jersey, and for that we applaud him,” he said.
But Vander Plaats warned that making the electability argument could backfire.
“It’s not an asset for him. I think Christie's going to have to pivot away from a Mitt Romney, governor-of-a-blue-state type argument because I don’t think Republicans are ready to double down on a losing strategy,” he said.
The Iowa conservative leader’s comments are a warning that Christie’s reelection victory is a double-edged sword, and risks alienating base voters in a GOP primary.
The more moderate policy and political steps he had to take to win a smashing reelection victory and govern a state as Democratic as New Jersey — embracing a Medicaid expansion under ObamaCare, calling for a pathway to citizenship, slamming fellow Republicans post-Sandy and embracing the president — may not sell in the more conservative GOP primary states of South Carolina and Iowa.
And it’s unclear whether Christie’s sky-high popularity — which was largely the product of his handling of Hurricane Sandy — will last over the next four years.
“A natural disaster can either make or break you, and it certainly made Chris Christie. There’s no question that without Sandy and his response to Sandy, he wouldn’t have gotten the level of support he did,” said Monmouth University pollster Patrick Murray.
“It's unclear though whether that's transferrable to a presidential campaign.”
Democrats point out the circumstances will be different in 2016. Barbara Buono is no Hillary Clinton, who is expected to easily win the Democratic nomination if she runs. Christie post-Hurricane Sandy, riding on sky-high approval ratings, isn’t a Christie in 2015 and 2016, after a likely challenging tenure as Republican Governors Association chairman and presiding again over a Democratic legislature.
And though Democrats gave him what many privately agreed to be a free pass this election cycle, they pledge that it won’t happen again with a credible Democratic challenger on the ballot and millions invested in properly vetting the Republican, who wasn’t much asked to answer critiques on his handling of New Jersey’s economy or school system.
Even Republicans admit that Christie’s reelection win isn’t the coronation he could be looking for.
National Republican Committeeman for Massachusetts Ron Kaufman, a Romney aide, said while Christie’s win was formidable, the long-term impacts were still unclear.
“Any time you get a Republican running in a state like New Jersey, and running really strong like he is, it’s a signal that everyone in our party takes notice of and respects. Chris Christie is someone that will be a leader of our party for the next three or four years,” he said.
“What that means for 2016, I think it’s too soon to say.”