Chris Christie just won a higher percentage of the vote than any Republican running in New Jersey since 1985. He won a huge majority of independent voters. He made inroads among African Americans, Hispanics, women, even Democratic voters. The northeastern-centric media universe will hail Christie as the savior of the Republican Party.
All of that is why, if he were a stock, today would be the perfect day to sell shares in Chris Christie.
Christie has plenty of assets that will serve him well as he prepares his all-but-inevitable presidential bid. He is aggressive at a moment when Americans crave decisive leadership. He is certain of where he stands in an era that abhors flip-flopping. He is highly intelligent and savvy enough to avoid an “oops” moment. He’s even more popular than the average presidential candidate is before launching a bid.
But the reality is that Christie faces enormous hurdles if he wants to run for president, which means today, as he basks in the glow of an adoring media spotlight after his historic win, is probably at the apex of his political career — at least until he wins his first early nominating process.
The Christie team will spin the governor’s win on Tuesday, over an underfunded Democrat who got little attention from party bigwigs, as proof positive that Christie can appeal across party lines — just what the GOP needs after crushing defeats in two straight presidential elections. But an off-year governor’s race against a broke opponent is different from a presidential contest, in which Christie will face not only well-funded rivals but the pitfalls of moving to the national stage. Here are some of the challenges Christie will face, culled from conversations with a few Republican strategists who have their eyes on the 2016 field, fans and foes of Christie alike:
— The New Jersey image: New Jersey isn’t Iowa, and what works in one state almost never works in another. Christie’s in-your-face attitude plays great in the Garden State, but how will it play in a town hall-style campaign event in Iowa? Or South Carolina, where the genteel way of life masks a sharp-elbowed political culture? Every time Christie gets into a shouting match, it makes for great cable news fodder. It also gives Christie’s eventual opponents the opportunity to take that footage out of context and recut it into a 30-second advertising spot that casts him in the worst possible light.
— The Giuliani factor I: Rudy Giuliani led most national polls in the 2008 Republican primary race until the first votes were cast, even though he never stood a chance in any single state (Check out this December 2007 CNN poll for a good trend line). Where does Christie get his first win? Iowa or South Carolina, where Christian conservatives are already being wooed by candidates like Rand Paul and Rick Santorum and Ted Cruz, don’t seem like obvious targets. New Hampshire? Watch out for Paul there, too. Christie’s team will have to pick a state to make their stand, something Giuliani’s crew didn’t do until Florida, when it was too late.
— The Giuliani factor II: Christie spent his last few days on the campaign trail touring New Jersey by bus. That’s an excellent habit to get into, and it stands in stark contrast with Giuliani, who would show up in Iowa cornfields with an armada of black SUVs and pinstripe suits. Early primary state voters expect a degree of informality and access that big-time Northeastern politicians aren’t used to allowing. There are hints in “Double Down,” the new mega-take on the 2012 campaign, that Christie’s entourage is already looking Rudy-like.
— The Northeastern stigma: Fair or not, there’s a stigma that comes with being a Northeastern Republican. Mitt Romney had to deal with skeptics who thought he couldn’t be a conservative because he came from Massachusetts. Christie will have to convince those same conservatives to give him the benefit of the doubt. And in a Republican Party that values purity over pragmatic deal-making, even Christie’s more reality-based decisions, like dropping a suit against same-sex marriage he was never going to win or signing a law banning gay conversion therapy, will be cast as revelatory of his closet moderate leanings.
— The NRA: Christie doesn’t have the best record on Second Amendment issues, in the minds of gun rights advocates. Christie has signed 10 gun bills into law, and though he vetoed some of the strictest laws the Democratic-led legislature passed last year, the NRA said it was “disappointed” in some of Christie’s actions. Christie also criticized the NRA for running a Web ad this year that invoked President Obama’s children.
— The media glow: It’ll fade away. Just ask John McCain, who was the media’s favorite Republican during the Bush administration. Christie won’t be the darling forever, and how he handles his eventual slip will determine just how far down it takes him. (Speaking of which, expectations will be a challenge for Christie, too: Who in the media doesn’t expect him to hit it out of the park at every debate?)
— The vetting: Everyone who wrote early previews of “Double Down” focused on Romney’s childish remarks about Christie’s weight. But there were actual items of substance that a Christie candidacy will have to deal with: A Justice Department investigation into his spending as U.S. attorney; his time lobbying on behalf of an industry group in which Bernie Madoff played a big role; and, of course, the YouTube clips of his past run-ins with his own constituents. If someone in RomneyWorld thought nothing of dropping their opposition research file in the laps of two journalists, it’s pretty certain that at least one of Christie’s potential rivals will get their hands on the same file, or dig up the same information themselves, before the Iowa caucuses.
— The health question: It’s not fair, and it’s not right, that Christie’s health is the subject of scrutiny. But it’s a fact, and it’s something the Christie campaign will have to deal with. Releasing a report showing him in good shape, which the campaign did last week, is a start.
And last, but certainly not least …
— The Republican Party: The Grand Old Party that once nominated Richard Nixon, George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush and McCain is gone, replaced by a cast of Tea Partiers who demand fealty on hot-button issues. Christie stepped out of the way of the gay marriage train, banned gay conversion therapy, picked fights with the NRA and walked arm-in-arm with President Obama at a critical point during the stretch run of the 2012 election. Who, beyond the Republican business establishment, is Christie’s base? That establishment doesn’t carry the influence it once did, and it’s not clear whether Christie can grow his support beyond New Jersey’s borders.
Of course Christie could win. His rivals face the same hurdles Christie does, and none of them have advantages like name recognition, crossover appeal or connections to big-money donors in New York and New Jersey. But the sheen will come off, and tough days are ahead for Christie.
Hold off on the coronation for now, there’s plenty of time before the clock strikes 2016.