What Chris Christie's (expected) blowout re-election can teach the GOP

Christie is winning two thirds of independent voters in New Jersey — and a third of Democrats, too

Chris Christie
(Image credit: (REUTERS/Tom Mihalek))

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) is expected to easily win re-election Tuesday, a victory that will come with a heaping dose of "I told you so" for the Republican Party.

Christie is an anomaly in the modern GOP, an unapologetic conservative with a pragmatic streak and bipartisan appeal. While congressional Republicans last month shut down the government and threatened a debt default to stop ObamaCare, Christie affirmed his opposition to same-sex marriage while dropping a legal challenge, which effectively made his state the latest in the nation to legalize it.

The divergent approaches had opposite results: Congressional Republicans blew up their approval rating, while Christie remained as popular as ever. With Christie headed for a blowout, his path to victory presents the GOP with a handy blueprint for future electoral success.

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In 2012, President Obama carried New Jersey by a 17-point margin. Yet Christie, despite his less-than-friendly relationship with unions and commitment to reducing spending, is crushing his Democratic opponent, state Sen. Barbara Buono, by up to a 36-point margin.

Christie has built such an enormous lead by both unifying his base and peeling off huge chunks of reliably Democratic demographics. He has the support of 94 percent of Republicans in New Jersey, according to the latest Quinnipiac poll, but also the support of 57 percent of women and 33 percent of African-Americans. He's also backed by 64 percent of independents, and nearly a third of Democrats.

The normally oppositional Star-Ledger, in a somewhat backhanded endorsement, wrote last month that Christie was proof that "there is a sensible middle ground in America after all."

While Christie is prone to arguing with public employees, he's also willing to bend when necessary. Christie's candor — he's fond of telling people "I am who I am" — has also earned him goodwill among voters from both sides of the aisle. And there's his conspicuous tendency to consistently praise President Obama for his performance during Hurricane Sandy, the event that has so far defined Christie's governorship and cemented his image as a passionate problem solver.

With the national GOP floundering, Christie's campaign is thus about "much more than winning a second term to enhance his power in New Jersey," wrote the Washington Post's Dan Balz. Rather, its outcome will "send a message to a divided Republican Party about how it can win in places where its presidential candidates have been losing."

Virginia's gubernatorial race, the only other one in the nation scheduled for Tuesday, lends that case even more weight. There, polls have shown the GOP candidate, Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, down by between mid-single and low-double digits, even though a plurality of voters dislike his opponent, Democrat Terry McAuliffe.

While the government shutdown has hamstrung Cuccinelli's efforts, his poor standing is mainly the result of his own doing. Cuccinelli campaigned strongly against abortion and gay rights, notably fighting to have the Supreme Court uphold the state's old anti-sodomy law. While Virginia is far more favorable territory to a Republican than New Jersey — Obama won the state by just a four-point margin — those far-right stands made it impossible for Cuccinelli to garner the kind of broad support Christie enjoys.

"Virginia has changed, and they haven't," former Virginia GOP Rep. Tom Davis told NBC of his party's staunch conservatives.

The Virginia GOP got itself into this mess by nominating Cuccinelli via a party convention instead of a primary. The convention process allows the party base to pick a dyed-in-the-wool conservative — it's how they wound up with a candidate for lieutenant governor who thinks yoga is a Satanic ritual — over a more moderate candidate, essentially choosing ideological purity at the expense of general election appeal.

Taken together, the two races offer a concise juxtaposition of the GOP's two competing strategies. On the one side, a die-hard conservative and anti-sodomy crusader is headed for likely defeat. On the other, a fiscal conservative with a penchant for pragmatism is looking at a historic victory.

Christie has already begun to make the case for his brand of governance, and he'll continue to do so as we inch closer to 2016.

"We need to show the Republican Party in America that we can win again," he said recently. "And guess where they're going to be watching on Tuesday night to see if we win: Right here in New Jersey."

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