Yet again, national Republicans are unhappy with New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. But unlike last time, where they were upset with his rhetoric — he praised President Obama for his handling of Hurricane Sandy — Republicans have a substantive complaint: Christie is sacrificing the fortunes of the GOP to his own ambitions.

With the passing of Senator Frank Lautenberg, Christie has to schedule a special election to fill his seat. Republicans hoped that Christie would hold the election in November, when he would be on the ballot. The New Jersey governor holds an overwhelmingly lead over his Democratic opponent, Barbara Buono, and his coattails could have elevated a Republican Senate candidate to victory in the deep blue state. As it stands, the special election will be held in October. The likely Democratic nominee — Newark Mayor Corey Booker — will have no trouble mobilizing his voters, and cruising to victory. Indeed, Republicans get the worst of both worlds — a short-term placeholder senator who will be replaced by a prominent Democrat with little chance of losing. And they’re angry about it. The Hill quotes one Republican who says that “We won a free prize. The governor just made that prize a little smaller.”

But for all their annoyance with Christie, the GOP should keep one thing in mind — he’s a conservative. And not just conservative for New Jersey. He’s conservative, period. Christie opposes abortion, same-sex marriage, and equal pay legislation. He supports Paul Ryan’s budget, opposes minimum wage increases, and is an enthusiastic opponent of unions. Before earning conservative ire for saying nice things about the president, he was a right-wing star for his aggressive attacks on teachers and other public employees. Yes, Christie’s conservatism isn’t as vocal as that of his counterparts in states further south, like Kansas or Louisiana. And yes, he doesn’t have political room to pursue the right-wing policies of other Republican governors. But ideologically, he lines up with the Bob McDonnells, Bobby Jindals, and Scott Walkers of the GOP.

If Republicans were smart — and looked to their long-term interests — they’d take advantage of this. Chris Christie is the definition of a cross-over success; he’s a conservative governor poised to win a huge reelection victory in a liberal state, with support from Democratic voters and Democratic donors. If they can excuse his occasional heterodoxy — and willingness to say nice things to Democrats — Republicans could, finally, have the popular champion they’ve been looking for.

Jamelle Bouie is a staff writer at The American Prospect, where he writes a blog.