Should the DGA have roughed up Christie more? Why Peter Shumlin doesn’t think so.

November 7, 2013

The Democratic Governors Association barely lifted a finger in the New Jersey governor's race this year, a contest Gov. Chris Christie (R) won in a landslide Tuesday. And that was no accident, according to Democratic Governors Association Chairman Peter Shumlin of Vermont.

The chair of the Democratic Governors Association, Gov. Peter Shumlin, talks about what makes Republican governor Chris Christie a force in politics. (The Washington Post)

"My job as chair of the DGA is to elect Democratic governors and to spend our resources very carefully and very smartly so that we can elect Democratic governors. It isn't to go into states to bruise people for the fun of it," he said in an interview with The Washington Post on Thursday.

Christie performed better than any Republican statewide candidate in New Jersey since 1988, giving him a valuable jumping-off point for a 2016 presidential campaign. A day after he won, Democrats around the country started hammering Christie hard, believing the governor to be his party's most formidable potential presidential contender.

Some Democrats, meanwhile, said it was a mistake not to attack him earlier.

The DGA spent only $7,600 in the New Jersey race, a spokesman said. By comparison, the group spent millions in Virginia on behalf of now Gov.-elect Terry McAuliffe (D).

But with Christie leading by a seemingly insurmountable margin from start to finish, there never appeared to be a realistic path to victory for Democrat Barbara Buono. And rather than throw money away, Shumlin argued, the party conserved its resources for races it feels it is better equipped to win or at least compete in.

"Our job is not go into the states to take shine off people," he said.

To some extent, Democrats were between a rock and a hard place with Christie's race. Spending immense resources trying to defeat him might have worked, but more likely it wouldn't have. If it didn't, Democrats would have exposed themselves to heavy criticism that they foolishly squandered money they could have spent elsewhere.

On the flip side, staying away from attacking Christie too much during the campaign prompted some Wednesday morning quarterbacking about whether the party is culpable for failing to blunt what amounted to a coronation.

Democrats poured big money into preserving the party's control of the New Jersey legislature, which will make it difficult for Christie to bolster his résumé with second-term accomplishments. But the governor's political stock is riding high.

If Christie runs for president in 2016 — a likely bet that he has not really been swatting down — will he make his ability to win big in a deep blue state a major part of his message? Without a doubt, yes. The question for Democrats now is whether they can define him between now and the end of 2014, because the time to do it before that has come and gone.

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