LIVINGSTON, N.J. — When Gov. Chris Christie’s campaign bus made its first stop last week, in front of the Ritz diner, the event had the trappings of both a victory lap and a road test.
The official victory lap can’t come until Tuesday night, when Christie is expected to cruise to reelection in his race against Democratic state Sen. Barbara Buono. If current trends hold, Christie could be the first Republican statewide candidate to win more than 50 percent of the vote since 1988. His percentage could be the highest for any gubernatorial candidate since 1985, which was long before New Jersey turned blue.
The road test was for a possible campaign for president in 2016. Christie’s gubernatorial reelection campaign is about much more than winning a second term to enhance his power in New Jersey. He and his advisers hope that the outcome will send a message to a divided Republican Party about how it can win in places where its presidential candidates have been losing.
In one way, Christie is taking a page from the playbook of former president George W. Bush, who used his 1998 gubernatorial reelection campaign in Texas to make himself the favorite for the Republican presidential nomination in 2000. Like Bush, Christie is trying to win by the biggest possible margin and show that, despite his conservative positions, he can attract support from constituencies long tied to the Democrats.
But the Republican Party that will pick its next presidential nominee in three years is far different from the one that nominated Bush. Christie should emerge from Tuesday’s election as a top-tier candidate for the GOP presidential nomination in 2016, but also as one fully stamped as a favorite of the establishment wing who has not been afraid to criticize hard-liners on the right.
“I said this to the RNC last summer,” Christie said aboard his bus later that day, referring to the Republican National Committee, “I’m in this to win, because if you don’t win, you can’t govern. If you can’t govern, you can’t move the country, the state, the city — whatever you’re running for — in the direction it needs to be moved in. I think we’ve had too many people [in the Republican Party] who’ve become less interested in winning an election and more interested in winning an argument.”
Tuesday’s gubernatorial elections in New Jersey and Virginia will highlight both strains of Republican conservatism, with Christie representing one approach and Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II — a tea party favorite and underdog in his race against Democratic businessman and fundraiser Terry McAuliffe — representing the other.
A loss by a tea party favorite in a swing state and a victory by Christie in a Democratic stronghold would probably set the terms for the next phase of the debate within the Republican Party about the way forward. If Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.) has become the symbol of the GOP’s tea party wing, Christie is poised to become the anti-Cruz.
Democrats nationally have thrown considerable resources into Virginia on behalf of McAuliffe. In contrast, the Democratic Governors Association (DGA) has done nothing to help Christie’s opponent. “We expend resources where we think we can make a difference, and we haven’t invested in New Jersey,” said Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin, chairman of the DGA.
Shumlin said style has overwhelmed substance in the New Jersey campaign. “Christie is doing well in the polls because of one simple fact,” he said. “His oversized personality has overshadowed scrutinizing his atrocious record as governor.”
There is no doubt that Christie’s personality is the dominant feature of his political style. The essence of his campaign message, and his appeal to voters, is emblazoned across his campaign bus in huge letters: “Strong Leadership Now.”
He has made his reputation as a blunt and confrontational politician, whether taking on the Democrats who control the New Jersey legislature or citizens who challenge him at town hall meetings. He is also a visceral pol who seems to enjoy nothing more than plunging into a crowd, trading quips, posing for photos, signing autographs and generally evoking the personality of his state. At his stops last week, he was mobbed by people snapping photos with their smartphones and jostling to get close to him.
His record as governor is mixed. One major plus is the praise that he has received for his handling of the devastation from Hurricane Sandy. Elsewhere, he has taken on public-sector unions over pensions and other benefits, which aides point to as the state equivalent of tackling federal entitlement programs. He has cut spending. But his state is still lagging economically. New Jersey’s unemployment rate, 8.5 percent in August, ranks in the bottom 10 among all states.
On many issues, Christie is more conservative than his state. He opposes abortion rights, is against same-sex marriage and vetoed a bill passed by the Democratic legislature that would have raised the minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $8.50 an hour. He has failed to win support from the legislature for cuts in income tax rates.
To those Republicans who question whether Christie is conservative enough for their tastes, he said this: “My record speaks for itself. When people take a look at my record, it’s more than sufficiently conservative.”
“I think he’s shown that he can govern in a conservative way, but in a bipartisan way at the same time,” said one senior adviser who spoke on the condition of anonymity to be candid. “I think people may think those things are mutually exclusive, but they’re not. . . . If you work in a bipartisan fashion, if you focus more on where you agree than on where you disagree, you can bring people together.”
Christie’s handling of the hurricane last year rankled some Republicans outside the state. They were irritated by the praise he heaped on President Obama at the time and by the fact that he did not appear in public with GOP nominee Mitt Romney in the closing days of the presidential campaign. Other detractors complained that Christie’s keynote address at the Republican National Convention focused too much on New Jersey and not enough on Romney.
On Tuesday, the anniversary of Sandy’s landfall in his state, Christie toured parts of New Jersey that had been hit the hardest, ending his day in Sea Bright, on a spit of land where the damage had been particularly devastating. The response he received from members of the community was overwhelmingly positive.
Martin Arasin, a retired law enforcement officer whose home was wrecked by the storm and who is still living in temporary quarters, was at a community potluck dinner that night, waiting for the governor to arrive. “I’m an Essex County Democrat by birth,” he said. “Always been a Democrat. But I’ll tell you what, Chris Christie is the epitome of a no-nonsense — not a politician, of a businessman doing the right thing for the state. If he doesn’t like something, he comes out and says it.”
Arasin’s reaction was typical of those who greeted Christie that day and the next as he began his bus tour. Frank Nebenburgh, a wildlife biologist, said, “He’s easily the only Republican I would consider voting for president at this time.”
Christie said there is a lesson in all this that should not be lost on others in his party. “People expect you to do the job,” he said. “They expect you to get the job done. And that’s sort of a universal truth, whether you’re a Republican, independent or Democrat. That’s what people want more than anything else. And they’re willing to put up with disagreeing with you on certain things.”
Christie’s goal Tuesday is more than just a big margin of victory. He wants to show that he can draw support from Hispanics and African Americans and from Democrats generally; he said his party has been inconsistent in its outreach to those groups. Christie said: “If we don’t get instant gratification, we walk away. I’ve worked for the last four years to build relationships with these folks. That’s the way you broaden the party, over a long period of time, to build relationships. And, ultimately, that’s the way you govern.”
After Tuesday, Christie said, he would focus on his second-term agenda for New Jersey, including a renewed effort to win support for tax cuts and a pledge to finish the cleanup after Sandy. In a few weeks, he will become chairman of the Republican Governors Association, a position that will allow him to travel the country raising money for the 2014 gubernatorial races and expanding his own financial network for a possible 2016 campaign.
“Anybody who’s looking for me to like turn around a month or two after 2013’s election and say I’ve made a decision about what I want to do going forward, they’re going to be waiting,” he said.
For most Republicans, however, the way that Christie has been running this fall leaves little doubt about where he is pointing.