Top Democratic officials launched a concerted offensive Wednesday to define New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie in a negative light, believing that he has emerged from his reelection landslide as the Republican Party’s strongest potential presidential contender for 2016.
Some Democratic strategists said the party made a mistake by not spending more money to attack Christie during the gubernatorial campaign, which might have suppressed his margin of victory and denied the Republican a sweeping mandate in a blue state. In the months to come, Democrats say, they plan to chip away at Christie’s moderate image and present him nationally as a hard-edged conservative.
In Washington, some of Christie’s possible rivals for the 2016 GOP nomination also criticized the governor Wednesday and sought to diminish the significance of his reelection romp.
The maneuvering comes as Christie prepares to become chairman of the influential Republican Governors Association, which will allow him to crisscross the country raising money and campaigning for fellow GOP governors next year. Democrats said they will attempt to tie Christie to those governors’ most unpopular policies.
Christie demonstrated his strength as a potential national candidate with a commanding victory on Tuesday, winning 60 percent of the vote in a state that President Obama carried handily a year ago. Christie showed broad appeal, carrying a majority of the votes of women and Hispanics and making gains with blacks and young people — all demographic groups that have stymied other Republicans.
As Christie campaigns next year alongside such Republican governors as Rick Scott of Florida, Scott Walker of Wisconsin and Tom Corbett of Pennsylvania, “he’s going to have to answer the question ‘Is this good for the states to focus on radical social agendas?’ ” said Colm O’Comartun, executive director of the Democratic Governors Association.
“What’s worked for [Christie] has been to make sure that nobody talks about the issues, that people just get consumed with his personality-driven late-show entertainment,” O’Comartun said. “People will see past the bluster and the vaudeville routine that is the Chris Christie show. They’ll focus in on the issues.”
Democratic strategist Steve Murphy said Christie is “the strongest candidate” for Republicans against former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton, who will be the overwhelming favorite for the Democratic nomination if she chooses to run. He said Democrats would be wise to highlight Christie’s conservatism on economic issues.
“His policy set in New Jersey is ‘Bush-Romney,’ ” Murphy said. “By comparison to the tea party, he seems moderate, but he’s not. And Democrats would do well to expose that reality.”
But that strategy would also be risky for Democrats, since casting Christie as a die-hard conservative could help him survive the Republican primaries.
Christie’s office had no comment on the attacks from Democrats, saying Tuesday’s election results speak for themselves.
Mark McKinnon, a strategist on George W. Bush’s presidential campaigns, said Christie would be “the dominant Republican story for the next three years” and will come under intense scrutiny, from opponents and the national media.
“In politics, the taller you stand, the harder the wind blows,” McKinnon said in an e-mail. “The best thing about Christie is that he doesn’t seem to mind a little wind. Or even a lot. He blows right back.”
In Christie, many establishment Republicans now see their best hope for taking back the White House.
“You’ve gotta say that this fella is really on the right track, if the Republican Party is not too stupid,” said Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), who went so far as to cast New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez as a potential running mate. “That would make a great ticket,” he said.
Some of Christie’s would-be competitors for the GOP nomination criticized him on Wednesday. Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.) repeatedly declined to weigh in on Christie’s win but said later at a Senate hearing that the governor’s appearance in television ads paid for by Hurricane Sandy recovery funds was “offensive” and gave the efforts a “black eye.”
“Some of these ads, people running for office put their mug all over these ads while they’re in the middle of a political campaign,” said Paul, who did not use Christie’s name but clearly identified the New Jersey governor.
Christie has criticized Washington Republicans for forcing a 16-day government shutdown last month. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), a leader of the shutdown effort, called Christie “terrific” on Wednesday but added: “I think we need more leaders in Washington with the courage to stand for principle.”
The sharpest attacks, however, came from national Democrats, who had largely abandoned Christie’s Democratic opponent, state Sen. Barbara Buono, believing she had no chance of winning.
Democratic National Committee spokesman Mo Elleithee said Christie won based on “the force of his personality” and that the emotional goodwill he earned for his response to the hurricane could not be transferred to other states.
“The Christie boomlet right now feels a little bit to me like the Rudy Giuliani boomlet,” Elleithee told reporters during a conference call, referring to the GOP New York mayor who fizzled out as a 2008 presidential candidate.
Bill Burton, who devised brutal attacks on 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney by the super PAC Priorities USA, said the smartest thing for Democrats to do is to track Christie with cameras and catalogue his public comments.
“There is true value in making sure that there are people keeping close track of him on rope lines and in public so that they can capture his inevitable outbursts,” Burton said. “His character is something that the American people will need to be educated on.”
Ben LaBolt, a senior aide on Obama’s 2012 campaign, said Democrats should make an “early investment” now to attack Christie. LaBolt noted that the last presidential candidate to tell his own story coming out of a reelection was then-Gov. George W. Bush of Texas — who went on to win the White House.
“There was a bit of a missed opportunity during the campaign itself,” LaBolt said of Christie’s reelection race. “At the national level, Governor Christie really got a clean shot at introducing himself, which is unfortunate.”
Paul Kane and Ed O’Keefe contributed to this report.