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John Feehery: A principled pragmatist

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What plays in Texas doesn’t necessarily play in New Jersey. And what plays in New Jersey doesn’t necessarily play in Texas.

Right now, if the Republican Party were to face a choice between New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Texas Gov. Rick Perry in the 2016 primaries, you would see how the party could split down the middle.

The challenge for the party and for both Perry and Christie is to chart a path that avoids that split and strengthens the party in time to take on former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Christie’s enormous and unprecedented victory in a perennially blue state in the Northeast has shaken up the right wing more than Obama’s reelection. The day after the election, instead of congratulating the larger than life incumbent, conservative luminaries like Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul took pot shots at him, trying to slow his momentum.

The Texas governor, who disastrously tanked in the last presidential election, joined in the fray, damning Christie with faint praise and serving notice that he was going to aggressively market the job growth that the Lone Star State has enjoyed over the last several years. 

These two governors represent the two tent poles of the party. One is a Northeastern Catholic who famously, if metaphorically, embraced President Obama in the days following Hurricane Sandy; the other is a Southern Baptist who hinted years ago that he might support efforts to have Texas secede from the union. 

Perry has talked about the need for principled conservatism. Christie has emphasized his pragmatic approach to governance. 

Christie has had to dance around issues like gun control and gay marriage to maintain his political viability in a state that is solidly Democratic. Perry hosted a revival meeting in Texas months before the primary season that received great fanfare in the Bible Belt but probably dashed any chance he had to compete in most states north of the Mason-Dixon Line. 

Interestingly, both Perry and Christie have embraced versions of the Dream Act, understanding that the Hispanic vote cannot be completely ignored. 

It has been the habit of Republicans in the last five elections to essentially write off states like New Jersey and put all of the party’s eggs in the Texas-like basket. But that habit has yielded a diminishing rate of return.

Ronald Reagan won New Jersey, New York, California and Illinois in both his elections. George H.W. Bush first lost New York in 1988 and then the rest of them in 1992, and for four of the next five elections, Republicans didn’t win the popular vote (in W’s reelection, the tally was in doubt until the wee hours of the morning).

Principled conservatives have little interest in competing in these states, instead focusing on their “principles” and relying on the wishful thinking that Florida, Ohio and Virginia will swing back into the red column. 

But if last Tuesday’s election told us anything, it is that “principled” conservatives can’t win in states like Virginia if they refuse to modify their principles to embrace a wider cross-section of voters, even if the other party nominates an ethically challenged fundraiser who has no true constituency in the Old Dominion. 

If the Grand Old Party wants to compete at the presidential level, it needs a strategy to retake the ground lost since Ronald Reagan’s last election. And to do so, it needs to learn from both Perry and Christie. 

From Perry, Republicans should learn how Texas has become a job-making factory and find out the strategies he has deployed that can be exported to other parts of the country. 

From Christie, Republicans should learn how to compete for votes in places where Republicans have never dared to tread before. How was he able to get ample votes from African-Americans and Hispanics, not to mention the female vote? 

Some conservatives have actually pointed to Christie’s wide margin of victory as evidence he is not sufficiently conservative. How can a true believer possibly get a big percentage of blacks, Hispanics and women to vote for him, they wonder.

Let them wonder.

The choice before the party is whether it wants to win elections or allow Clinton or — worse — Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) to run the country. 

We need a candidate who can play both in Jersey and in Texas, who has a solid record of job creation and an even better record of expanding the base of the party.  In other words, we need a principled pragmatist. 


Feehery is president of Quinn Gillespie Communications and spent 15 years working in the House Republican leadership. He is a contributor to The Hill’s Pundits Blog and blogs at thefeeherytheory.com