When Chris Christie was first elected governor of New Jersey in November 2009, his win–along with that of Bob McDonnell in Virgina–was seen as the first sign of the Tea Party’s political muscle. Two months later, Scott Brown (R) would win the special Senate election in Massachusetts. The 2010 midterms followed.
So it is ironic that Christie’s easy re-election is already being viewed as a victory for the party establishment.
Christie is often contrasted to Virginia’s Attorney General, Ken Cuccinelli, who has struggled so badly in his race for governor. But whatever Cuccinelli’s supposed ideological weaknesses–his social conservatism, his Tea Party association in the state hurt worst by the recent federal government shutdown–nothing hurt Ken Cuccinelli quite so much as McDonnell’s disappointing corruption scandals and bad policy record.
Not only did McDonnell enact a massive tax increase, but he also welcomed Obamacare into the state by accepting the law’s expanded Medicaid funding. (McDonnell had vowed earlier that he would not take the Obamacare funds.)
The combined weight of these betrayals demoralized conservative activists and donors. Why should they trust anyone–even someone with Cuccinelli’s credentials–after being sold out so brazenly?
Christie also took the Medicaid funding, despite promising that he would not. And after some initial changes to the state budget that helped New Jersey control runaway spending, Christie did little to help the state’s finances or its economy. Unemployment is “basically unchanged” since he took office. The non-partisan Tax Foundation ranks New Jersey 49th out of 50 states for its business tax climate–even below California.
Conservatives once cheered Christie for standing up to the aggressive, hyper-partisan teachers’ unions. But he is now viewed by some as soft on Islamic extremism. He is remembered for giving Obama an unnecessary boost in the closing days of the 2012 campaign by praising his “outstanding” job. And when Christie falsely claimed that he had opposed pork in relief bills for Superstorm Sandy, conservatives pushed back.
Christie is winning big because voters believe he is fighting for them. But he is governing as a Democrat. There is little in his record–and less in his temperament–that would translate well elsewhere. He is not the only Republican to win in a blue state–and as 2012 showed, that is not, by itself, a winning formula.
In red states, conservative principles count. That is why Cuccinelli is facing a libertarian spoiler while Christie is coasting to victory.