Democrats insist they can thwart Chris Christie (R) if he seeks the White House in 2016, despite the broad appeal he showed in winning reelection last week.
Even though the New Jersey governor secured more than 60 percent of the votes against state Sen. Barbara Buono (D), Democratic strategists in the Garden State and beyond believe he has vulnerabilities they could exploit in a national election.
Above all, they assert that Christie’s famously combative style could result in a loss of self-control during the heat of a presidential campaign.
“People like the fact that he gets angry and yells at people sometimes. But they don’t want their next president to be unhinged.”
Christie’s combative tendencies were on display during the gubernatorial campaign, and his supporters point out that they did not do him much harm.
It was widely reported that the governor told a female public school teacher who criticized him at a campaign stop, “I’m tired of you people.” A photo of Christie jabbing his finger at the teacher went viral on social media.
Christie denied using the words reported but did not dispute that it was a tense exchange. By his account, the woman asked him why he referred to public schools as “failure factories,” and he replied, “Because they are.” He also insisted, “What I said was, ‘It’s never enough for you people. No matter how much money I give, it’s never enough for you people.’”
Many Democrats acknowledge that such encounters could deepen the sense that Christie is a straight talker, temperamentally in step with the denizens of his rambunctious state. But they also suggest his approach could turn off voters in other parts of the nation.
“He is very loose with what he says, and he comes across as blunt and outspoken,” Paul Swibinski, a New Jersey-based Democratic strategist said. “It plays really well in New Jersey, the kinda Tony Soprano, Bill Parcells, Chris Christie thing of being big, tough, straight-talking Jersey guys. But how well it plays in the rest of the country remains to be seen.”
Allies of Christie argue the governor has attained a high national profile, in part, because of his plain speaking. Even the controversial Time magazine cover that appeared last week, featuring Christie in profile and the headline “the elephant in the room,” could be seen as a reference to his take-no-prisoners style.
Democrats insist that they could mount effective attacks against Christie’s policy record, not just his personal demeanor. They argue the media has exaggerated the governor’s centrism.
Christie has sometimes diverged from Republican orthodoxy but, according to critics on the left, such apostasies tend to take only stylistic or rhetorical form.
Viewed through their lens, Christie’s willingness to speak warmly of President Obama in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy or sometimes excoriate Republicans in Washington is less important than his policy choices.
At an economic level, those choices include a willingness to veto bills raising New Jersey’s minimum wage and support for reducing the earned income tax credit, which is designed to help workers on modest incomes.
On social issues, Christie is adamantly opposed to abortion and only recently gave up on an effort to reverse a court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage in the state.
“Ultimately, it doesn’t take much digging to find that Chris Christie is masking himself as a moderate,” said Marcy Stech, the national press secretary for liberal advocacy group EMILY’s List.
Asked if she truly saw Christie in the same light as Republicans with a reputation for hewing to a harder line, such as Sen. Ted Cruz (Texas), Stech replied, “Yes. They are cut from the same cloth.”
The battle over how to define Christie’s ideological contours is a complicated one, however. While the governor has, at times, stressed his willingness to be pragmatic, he has also tried to avoid being cast as what some on the right pejoratively term a RINO, or Republican In Name Only.
“I’m a conservative,” he told CNN on the day of his reelection. “I’ve governed as a conservative in this state. I haven’t tried to hide it, or mask it as something different.”
Conversely, while some liberals insist that Christie is not really a centrist, others argue that he bears a close enough resemblance to one to complicate his path if he seeks the GOP presidential nomination.
“I know the governor, and I like him on a personal level tremendously,” said New Jersey Democratic strategist Julie Roginsky. “But he has got a long way to go before he gets the nomination.
“He has the same problem as [Mitt] Romney, which is that what you have to do to sell yourself to a Democratic audience in a Democratic state is not what you have to do to sell yourself to a conservative audience in a Republican primary in states like Iowa and South Carolina.”
Still, even as Democrats tick off what they see as the many hurdles facing a Christie candidacy, most of them acknowledge that the governor’s skills are formidable. He often seems like the Republican they most fear in 2016.
“I am not a fan of Chris Christie, but I have to tell you that he is the best politician I’ve seen since Bill Clinton,” said Swibinski. “I think he could carry New Jersey against Hillary [Clinton]; I really do.
“I would be supporting Hillary and working hard for her, but I think Christie could do it,” he said.