New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s (R) odd-couple friendship with Newark Mayor Cory Booker (D) opens them both up to criticism from their base, but in their quest for higher office, the immediate benefits of the relationship far outweigh the potential harm. [WATCH VIDEO]
And the Times is reporting that Booker’s Democratic primary opponents in the New Jersey special Senate election plan to use that friendship to question Booker’s commitment to his own party.
Any effort to highlight the friendship will likely cause Christie some headaches nationally, as he’s already taken flack from conservatives who saw his praise of President Obama’s handling of Hurricane Sandy just days before the presidential election as party treason and evidence he’s a "Republican In Name Only."
But while the relationship may be occasionally problematic, it’s ultimately useful in their political pursuits — both immediate and, for Christie, long-term.
“They both realize that a friendship between the two of them and an agreement not to challenge the other is mutually beneficial. Both are sort of the preeminent force in their parties in the state, and there’s no reason they both can’t be the kings of their hills in New Jersey,” said GOP strategist Matt Mackowiack.
Booker’s decision not to challenge Christie in the gubernatorial race was largely pragmatic — he’d have had a harder time winning a race against the popular, well-funded governor than he would a Senate race against either an aging incumbent or a handful of lesser-known lawmakers.
But New Jersey Democrats agree the friendship between the two made the gubernatorial race that much more distasteful to Booker.
With Booker opting out of the gubernatorial race, the friendship, to the extent that it helps Christie appeal to the centrist Democrats he needs to win big on Election Day, is a boon for Christie’s potential presidential hopes.
Christie has led in every poll of the New Jersey gubernatorial race by substantial margins, and if he sustains that lead through Election Day, he’ll be able to tout his blowout victory in a state as blue as New Jersey as evidence he can play nationwide.
A blowout win in November would also give him a mandate to govern on his own principles and potentially open up opportunities for him to pass conservative policies that he can point to in 2016.
It’s a strategy that’s banking on the belief that electability will trump ideological purity in the 2016 GOP presidential primaries.
“The most immediate task for Chris Christie is to win in November and to win big. He expects that margin of victory to propel him towards a frontrunner status in the 2016 field, and he’s counting on Republican primary voters to vote for the person most likely to win, as opposed to the most ideologically pure candidate,” said Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University.
It’s true that the GOP primary electorate typically cuts conservative, and tends to vote with issues other than electability in mind.
The 2012 defeat of GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney had some conservatives howling that the party lost because it compromised on its principles and nominated the most electable, rather than the most ideologically pure, Republican.
It’s hard to imagine those far-right Republicans staying home in 2016. But Ryan Williams, a former Romney campaign spokesman, said he believes those pushing electability as the most important issue in the presidential race will grow even louder in the coming months.
“You win elections by getting the most votes. Therefore, you need a candidate who appeals to the most voters,” he said, calling the backlash “bogus.”
And Republicans agree that, as Mackowiack put it, if Democrat Hillary Clinton runs, “the party is going to be very worried.” Her candidacy would emphasize the need for a bipartisan, centrist Republican with widespread appeal — an argument Christie can make for himself if he wins by a substantial margin in November.
“Obviously a strong win for him in November of this year bolsters his electability case in November of 2016,” Mackowiack said.
After this upcoming November, though, it remains to be seen whether that warm relationship will continue. If Booker is elected to the Senate, he’s likely to take on a more prominent role in the party, and could become more of a liability if Christie begins laying the groundwork for a 2016 run.
“After his election, we can fully expect the governor to start appealing more directly to Republican primary voters,” Dworkin said.
Distancing himself from old Democratic friends will be the first of many steps he’ll have to take to appeal to the conservative base that has long criticized him for his apparent chumminess with Obama.
He’s already begun that process, throwing conservatives some red meat by charging Obama “can’t figure out how to lead” earlier this week.
Booker will look to use the friendship as evidence he’s capable of working with the other party on a post-partisan level, an argument that will contribute to the campaign message he’s pitching — that of an outsider heading to Washington to help fix it.
Asked about the relationship, Booker said as much, giving a justification for the friendship that was unclear, absent party identification, which half of the odd couple it came from.
“At the end of the day [the people of New Jersey] will applaud my ability to articulate where I am different than the other side. But what they really want is somebody to build a framework of where we can be together,” he said on a local radio show last month.