How Superstorm Sandy became Chris Christie’s defining moment

October 29, 2013

Updated at 8:46 a.m.

Exactly one year ago today, Superstorm Sandy made landfall over New Jersey. It was a natural disaster with a human toll that was leaps and bounds more significant than any political ramifications it carried.

That said, it's difficult to overstate how much the moment has come to define the political career of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) as he heads to a likely second term and a potential bid for the White House in 2016.

Superstorm Sandy has come to define New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. The Republican has spent the past year on the national stage showcasing his brand of GOP politics. Here is a look at some of the Christie moments that have made news. (The Washington Post)

It's helpful to think of Christie's response to the storm in two ways: what it's meant for the governor inside New Jersey and how it affected him nationally.

Inside the Garden State, Christie's response to the storm was very well-received. His approval rating jumped up to a nearly unheard of 77 percent in one poll taken just after Sandy. (It was 56 percent before.) Another survey showed it at 72 percent. Christie's decision to tour storm damage with President Obama -- controversial among some Republicans given how close it was to Election Day -- was heartily welcomed by the heavily Democratic Garden State.

Christie went from a competitive bet for reelection to an overwhelming favorite. And he's never looked back. If there were any doubts that Christie's political team saw great benefit in reminding voters about his reaction to Sandy, they were put to rest with Christie's first ad of the spring, the last ten seconds of which focused on his Sandy response, and his first ad of the fall, which also mentioned his response to the storm.

"When tragedy struck, he was there every step of the way," said the narrator of the 30-second spot in September.

Christie did a round of morning television interviews Tuesday, and he'll do a series of local stops later dedicated to remembering Sandy and its aftermath by thanking first responders and volunteers.

"We still have a lot of more people who are frustrated, who are not back in their homes, and my mission is to get all those people back in their homes," Christie said on "CBS This Morning."

It's not just New Jerseyans who took notice of Christie during and after Sandy. The governor's decision to welcome Obama stoked suspicion among conservatives about his commitment to the party -- suspicion he will have to address should he run for president. Meanwhile, a high-profile tirade against House Republicans for initially refusing to pass a Sandy aid package helped Christie brandish an outside-Washington, no-nonsense image he's continued to cultivate ever since.

If Christie makes a White House bid, a major part of his campaign will likely center around the idea of leadership -- getting things done, whether it means lashing your own party or working with the other one. And you can bet that his response to Sandy will be something he will mention more than a few times.

Christie's story is a reminder that the way pols handle natural disasters is hugely important.  And while the book on his career is far from over, it's safe to say that Sandy will big a big part of it when it is.

Fixbits: 

Democrat Terry McAuliffe leads Republican Ken Cuccinelli II 51 percent to 39 percent in a new Washington Post/Abt SRBI poll of the Virginia governor's race.

Obama will campaign with McAuliffe on Sunday.

The president ordered that all U.S. flags fly at half-staff Tuesday to honor the late House speaker Tom Foley.

Maryland Attorney General and gubernatorial candidate Douglas Gansler (D) reportedly said a child's gender might affect the way parents view underage drinking.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) says he'll block Obama's appointees until information about the survivors of the Benghazi attack is disclosed by the Obama administration.

Scott Brown formed a PAC in New Hampshire.

The Senate Conservatives Fund endorsed Rob Maness in the Louisiana Senate race.

Must-reads: 

"Obama didn’t know about surveillance of U.S.-allied world leaders until summer, officials say" -- Scott Wilson and Anne Gearan, Washington Post

"Obama administration knew millions could not keep their health insurance" -- Lisa Myers and Hannah Rappleye, NBC News

"Joe Biden on sideline in gun control talks" -- Reid J. Epstein, Politico

Sean Sullivan has covered national politics for The Washington Post since 2012.
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