New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s (R) decision to abandon his legal fight against gay marriage has enraged social conservatives — and shows he’s betting a big reelection win next month matters more to his 2016 presidential ambitions than appealing to a religious base already leery of him. [WATCH VIDEO]
That calculation will likely help him maintain a big lead heading into New Jersey’s Nov. 5 gubernatorial election. It takes away a major issue his Democratic opponent, state Sen. Barbara Buono, has criticized him over during the campaign.
Most polls show Christie headed for a solid double-digit reelection win, which the governor needs to bolster his case to potential Republican primary voters that he is electable in Democratic states.
But by standing down on his gay marriage fight, Christie is also inviting risk. He has likely damaged himself with the evangelical voters who make up large parts of the Republican primary electorate in early-voting Iowa and South Carolina.
“It’s disappointing that … the governor decided not to see it all the way through. It’s disappointing and, frankly, a little disturbing,” Family Research Council President Tony Perkins, a leading social conservative, told The Hill.
“He says he’s for marriage, but he walked away in his day of testing on this. That doesn’t bode well for his chances with conservative voters.”
Christie has repeatedly said he’s personally against gay marriage but believes the voters should decide whether it’s legal. He’s long supported civil unions and signed a bill earlier this year banning “gay conversion therapy” in the state.
He decided on Monday not to continue fighting the legalization of gay marriage through court order after a unanimous ruling from the state’s Supreme Court against an appeal to delay it in the state.
Christie’s office said the governor “strongly disagrees” with the ruling but said he was dropping the challenge because “the court has now spoken clearly” on the issue.
The reaction among Republican kingmakers in Iowa was swift.
“Governor Christie is not showing leadership. Leaders lead out of conviction,” Iowa religious conservative leader Bob Vander Plaats said in a statement.
“It is one thing to say ‘I believe in one man, one woman marriage,’ but when the judicial branch attempts to legislate from the bench in violation of their constitutional boundaries, and then you back away from upholding the institution of marriage and the Constitution, you aren’t a leader.”
University of Iowa political scientist Tim Hagle said the Republican base will often forgive Christie because he has “got to do things to be a successful governor in a very blue state.”
But “at a certain point, they get tired of it, and I think that Christie would have a hard time in Iowa convincing die-hard conservatives to support him,” Hagle said.
But Christie might also have made a simple calculation: that he was never going to do well with base conservatives anyway.
He has been shunned by leaders multiple times this year. Perkins didn’t invite him to speak at his group’s Values Voter Summit earlier this month, even though, at that point, Christie was still fighting gay marriage in the courts.
And the Garden State governor was pointedly not invited to speak at last spring’s Conservative Political Action Conference after criticizing conservative opposition to Hurricane Sandy relief.
Christie, however, could bolster his image as a deal-making pragmatist, something that plays well with independent voters as well as the wealthy donors that bankroll winning GOP presidential campaigns.
“[Christie’s decision is] certainly no problem in New Jersey. The comments here have been good, almost universally. There’s an understanding out there that this is a guy who’s practical,” said former New Jersey Gov. Tom Kean (R), a friend and ally of Christie’s.
Christie’s move might also help him stand out in a primary race that could be crowded with Tea Party conservatives, and where money ultimately matters more than ideological purity.
“He’s in a tough place with respect to winning the early primaries over this issue. But if he can get to a place like Florida, he’s going to look a lot better,” said GOP strategist Ford O’Connell.
“He was in a tough position with social conservatives to begin with. He picked the lesser of the two evils on this. He’s saying ‘If I take care of New Jersey right now, 2016 will take care of itself.’ ”
That might lead to Christie skipping Iowa entirely, or taking a wait-and-see approach on the state like GOP 2012 presidential nominee Mitt Romney did in 2008.
Kean said while Christie hadn’t yet made a decision on contesting Iowa, he doesn’t think it’s likely.
“It’s a judgment he’ll make down the line — I doubt it,” Kean told The Hill.
Two top Christie strategists, Mike DuHaime and Bill Stepien, worked for New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s (R) 2008 presidential campaign when he made the decision to bypass the state entirely.
“It definitely hurts his chances in Iowa. This is the type of issue that you can’t say to a Republican activist that it just wasn’t worth fighting anymore. For a lot of people, this isn’t a political issue he’s given up on. This is a core fundamental religious issue,” said former Iowa Republican Party Political Director Craig Robinson. “I imagine they’re not going to have a ‘win Iowa’ strategy at the front of their campaign.”
Christie has long been viewed has having a better chance of winning a primary in a less religious and conservative early-voting state, like New Hampshire or Florida.
The GOP candidate who’s won those states has regularly won the nomination, while those who win Iowa often fade down the stretch.
“The winner in Iowa has not been the nominee much,” Kean said.