“I can’t remember a gubernatorial election ever called at 8:02,” News 12 NJ’s Walt Kane reported at that exact time, simultaneously citing the early numbers (or lack thereof) and the near certainty that New Jersey Governor Chris Christie was poised for reelection.
It’s a trouncing many will interpret as a step closer to the White House, but Christie is after something much more influential and pervasive than the ephemeral attention of 2016 horse race enthusiasts–becoming the face of the national Republican Party.
The numbers out of New Jersey justify the enthusiasm in DC and on cable news: Christie improved his numbers among African-American voters by more than ten points, won the female vote, and about broke even with Latinos. He did well even among Democrats–so much so that his opponent, Metuchen Democrat Barbara Buono, went out of her way to highlight that her campaign faced an “onslaught of betrayal from my own political party.”
Christie’s reelection comes at a perfect time, as well–entering a period in which the national obsession with Sen. Ted Cruz has returned to reserved fascination after a period of frenzy, in which no one has yet to claim the “2016 GOP savior of the month” banner for November just yet. It comes as reports of former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney feeling too uncomfortable with Christie’s background to put him on the ballot led Romney to say Christie could “easily be our nominee.”
Anyone looking at this picture and perceiving a potential desire in Christie to be the savior of the party is correct, but saving the GOP and being its presidential nominee are two very different things. What he appears to seek, at least for now, is influence within the party and not mere title. He doesn’t want to be Mitt Romney, any more than he wanted to be Tom Kean, Jr. or Bret Schundler when he announced a run for governor. He wants to be the man the national party turns to when they need a kingmaker in purple or blue states. And more often than not, that man is not the one kissing babies in Iowa and New Hampshire.
He said as much in his victory speech Tuesday night. “I don’t need an introduction to you because I am one of you,” he told the crowd, emphasizing that his victory is as much a unique New Jersey phenomenon as it is a testament to his superlative political instinct. The latter he noted when he said of his campaign, “we don’t just show up in the places where they vote for us a lot; we show up in he places where they vote for us a little.” Christie is selling his ability to change minds, to reach voters that would otherwise never look at a Republican ticket. He is not selling his ability to reach Republican primary voters and subsequently shift gears to appeal to undecided voters in the infamous swing state of Ohio, but to convince those voters to look at their local Republicans when they otherwise would never.
No campaign stop proved Christie’s intentions than his stint in Union City, NJ, on election eve. Christie headlined his campaign event there–a heavily Democratic, 85% Latino city–with the city’s mayor and state senator, Democrat Brian Stack, and Republican New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez. Stack, arguably one of the Democratic traitors against whom Buono so viscerally railed last night, endorsed Christie in defiance of his local party organization as much as the national Democratic machine. Just as Hudson County remains the defiantly blue stronghold in the statewide map, so too did it rebel in having one of its most powerful Democratic leaders get out the vote for a Republican. It’s just that kind of place.
There are visual cues to what kind of pretzel-looking special accommodations can come out of bipartisan leadership. The resulting campaign literature from Stack, for example, looks something like a spider web, with detailed instructions in part designed to diminish any potential coattails for other Republicans from the Christie endorsement while conspicuously leaving Buono’s name off the sample ballot. Looking at it, despite the results for Christie in Hudson County, one can’t help receive the message that Christie makes moderate Democrats want to believe in exceptions–and if he can do that to party leaders, voters surely follow.
On a national level–in the Beltway, where only presidential elections seems to matter–pundits will inevitably attempt to shoehorn such a talent for compromise into a presidential run. After all, the narrative is that the Republican Party needs an electric jolt lest it breathe its last breaths, and running Christie would certainly be that. But running Christie without Christie himself taking the time to establish himself as the face of the party–the culture of the Republican Party–would do nothing to change it. And no one knows that better than Christie himself.