Why Sandy poses a major test for Chris Christie (and how he’s passing it so far)

Hurricane Sandy made landfall in New Jersey Monday night, where outspoken Gov. Chris Christie (R) faces a potentially tough reelection campaign in 2013. A year in advance, the rough storm and its aftermath could be the biggest test yet of the brusque governor’s management capabilities.

It’s a test Christie is largely passing so far, by adhering to a vital political principle in instances like these: leave politics aside.

(Mel Evans/AP)

Christie’s never been one to pull punches when it comes to President Obama’s record. But when it came to taking stock Tuesday morning of the president’s response to the storm, Christie offered a glowing review.

“The federal government’s response has been great. I was on the phone at midnight again last night with the President, personally, he has expedited the designation of New Jersey as a major disaster area,” Christie said on NBC’s “Today” show. Obama on Tuesday morning declared a major disaster exists in New Jersey, and ordered federal aid be sent to the state. 

If there is a time constituents expect their elected officials to act totally independent of politics, it is after a natural disaster, when lives may be at risk, households are without power, and many are left stranded. Christie’s non-political tone is exactly the one people want to hear at times like these.

When asked about the impact of the storm on next week’s election, Christie said the lieutenant governor and secretary of state have been in touch with other East Coast secretaries of state, but stressed that the issue was about the last thing on his mind right now.

“I will tell you this administration at the moment could give a damn less about Election Day,” Christie said. He continued: “While the national election is obviously very important, the people of New Jersey at this moment, would really be unhappy with me if they thought for a second I was occupying my time with thinking about how I was going to get people to vote a week from today.”

Christie’s no-nonsense persona has shown through the past couple of days as the storm approached the Garden State and eventually impacted it. While he hasn’t clashed with Obama, he has tangled with a politician closer to home. The governor lashed out at the mayor of Atlantic City at a Monday news conference for, in his view, failing to spur local residents to evacuate in the area, as Christie had recommended.

"And now I'm going to have to send emergency personnel in there tomorrow, with live wires all over the place, risking their lives because Mayor Langford was worried that some of those people were angry?" Christie said. "That's not leadership, everybody."

Natural disasters test presidents, governors and mayors in ways other events simply don’t. These are moments when the public yearns for strong leadership, and quick results. Provide it, and you’re a hero. Fall short, and it doesn’t take long for the constituents to place the blame squarely on you. Christie should know this; he faced criticism for vacationing before the 2010 snowstorm hit his state. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg's (I) suggestion during that storm that residents relax and take in a Broadway show was a poor mark on his record

Christie has not committed to running for a second term, but the Republican Governors Association's recent decision to tap the first-term governor as its head in 2014 suggests at least some prominent Republicans believe he will pursue one. If he does, he could face Newark Mayor Cory Booker (D) in what could quickly become the highest-profile statewide contest of 2013.

Christie is one of a handful of governors of states in Sandy’s path who have been mentioned in conversations about higher office. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) and Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) are frequently mentioned as potential 2016 presidential candidates. Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell (R), who currently chairs the RGA, has also attracted national buzz. Any missteps in the relief effort could take a long-term political toll on each of the four high-profile pols.

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