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Robert David SullivanNovember 06, 2013

The odds against Chris Christie becoming president didn’t get any shorter this week. The Republican was re-elected governor of blue New Jersey by 22 points (60-38), but it would have been more significant if he had won a U.S. Senate race by a single vote. He couldn’t have won that race by reminding people of how he handled Hurricane Sandy. It would have been a lot harder to disassociate himself from Mitch McConnell and from the Tea Party dead-enders in Congress.

Christie’s landslide reminds me of Republican Governor Bill Weld, who was re-elected in even bluer Massachusetts by 43 points in 1994. Weld was breezier than the pugnacious Christie, but his political appeal was similar. He mocked government as inefficient and he vowed not to raise taxes, but on almost every other issue, he was a pragmatist. Any hopes he had of becoming president ended two years later when he failed to unseat U.S. Senator John Kerry. His cross-over appeal drained away when he represented the party that made Trent Lott majority leader of the Senate.

Exit polls from Tuesday had Christie winning 21 percent of the black vote, 51 percent of the Hispanic vote and 57 percent of the women’s vote. If a Republican presidential nominee got the same numbers, he or she would win comfortably. But the circumstances are not reproducible. Christie’s high approval ratings since Hurricane Sandy dissuaded New Jersey Democrats from mounting a serious challenge to his re-election. So Christie could aim for a landslide, not a close win. That means he had no reason to make even the subtlest pitch to white male voters at the expense of other groups.

And partly because New Jersey hasn’t been a competitive state in presidential elections for decades, the Republican Party there hasn’t pushed through voter ID laws, or made allegations about voter fraud in black neighborhoods. Christie didn’t have to deal with GOP county chairmen making racist comments on TV or members of the New Jersey congressional delegation attacking immigration reform or a U.S. Senate candidate on the same ticket making ill-advised comments about rape. Minority and women voters in swing states may have more deeply rooted views about the Republican Party than they do in liberal New Jersey. (My America colleague Kevin Clarke is also skeptical that Christie is a cure-all for “GOP problems with national elections.” See his roundup of Election 2013 results.)

There is also the question of Christie’s temperament. Business Insider’s John Barro sees no reason to doubt it will play elsewhere:

The truth is that Christie’s style is less specific to New Jersey than most people (including Christie) would have you think. His approach isn’t typical for New Jersey politicians; nobody would describe Christie Todd Whitman or Jon Corzine or Cory Booker as a “Jersey loudmouth.” And brash, confrontational, off-script, sometimes angry politicians can thrive outside New Jersey: Just look at Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel or London Mayor Boris Johnson.

But it’s telling that Emanuel and Johnson (as well as Rudy Giuliani) were elected mayors of big cities, and Christie is the governor of one of the most urbanized states in America. It’s hard to think of many successful politicians outside the Northeast who are known for displaying anger. Maybe the late Alaska Senator Ted Stevens? John McCain could get testy when running for president, but he tried to soften any outbursts with self-deprecating jokes and folksy appeals to “my friends.” He’d flash his temper but leave the impression that it pained him to disagree with other Americans.

The political attack that’s made more in sorrow than anger has been common in the South and small-town America (and sometimes in Ronald Reagan’s laid-back California), and I can see Rand Paul or Rick Perry or sad-eyed Ted Cruz goading Christie into losing his temper in debates. Jonathan Chait has a similar reaction:

[Republican voters] may like the spectacle of Christie heaping verbal punishment upon random Democrats who challenge him. It’s another thing altogether if he gives this treatment to Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, Paul Ryan, Scott Walker, or other fellow partisans. If Christie tries to bully fellow Republicans in good standing, it would seem more likely to confirm the accusation that Christie, not them, is the cultural and ideological alien. And if he can’t use bluster, what tools are available to him?

I see one plausible path to Christie getting the Republican nomination. If the Iowa caucuses boost a patently unelectable candidate (like Mike Huckabee in 2008 and Rick Santorum in 2012) and Christie then wins the New Hampshire primary by a decisive margin (but I can imagine the calmer Paul Ryan beating him there), he’ll probably win just about everywhere outside of the South and the Central Plains states (like McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012). However, if an acceptable candidate wins Iowa (like George W. Bush in 2000), Christie won’t win much outside of the Northeast Corridor.

Maybe Christie’s perceived electability will convince Republican Party leaders to unite behind him as the alternative to a Tea Party nominee, even though nominating someone who had won blue-state suburbs didn’t work out last time. (Romney lost Massachusetts and Christie carrying New Jersey on a ticket with, say, Scott Walker, is no sure thing.) Maybe congressional Republicans won’t revolt over someone who, as Chait writes, “has openly endorsed gun control, called for a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, and conceded the legitimacy of climate science.” And maybe GOP candidates for lower offices will be enthusiastic about a governor who had no coattails. (As Real Clear Politics’ Sean Trende writes, “Republicans picked up two Assembly seats and made no gains in the Senate” in New Jersey on Tuesday.)

For now, the Christie bandwagon is looking a lot like the one that Rudy Giuliani rode to third place in the Florida primary of 2008.


Virginia, New York City, and Boston

Democrat Terry McAuliffe was elected governor of Virginia on Tuesday by 2.5 points, a smaller margin than most polls predicted but close to Barack Obama’s 4-point win in the state last year. (The Huffington Post has a scatterplot chart showing how similar the county-level results were in both elections.) The good news for Democrats is that the nonwhite vote was pretty high for a non-presidential year, which may bode well for next year’s congressional elections. (Dave Weigel: “Relative to 2009, the white share of the vote fell from 78 to 72 percent.”) But there were no signs of a Republican collapse after the government shutdown follies of early October. (Nate Cohn, behind The New Republic’s paywall: “McAuliffe did as bad as President Obama in coal country and western Virginia, the exact sort of places where Democrats need to rebound to retake the House.”)

I was struck by the terrible coverage Republican nominee Ken Cuccinelli got outside the conservative media once he fell behind in the polls. For this election, my flashback was to the U.S. Senate race between Chuck Robb and Oliver North in Virginia in 1994, which also featured caricatures of an unsavory Democrat and a conservative kook. (Maybe it wasn’t as bad as the 1991 gubernatorial race between Edwin Edwards and David Duke in Louisiana.) Given the deep partisan division in the state, there’s a very good chance that if the Republicans had nominated someone a bit more moderate, the polls would have been close all along but the result would have been the same, giving McAuliffe a much more triumphant election night.

Then there were the two big mayor’s races in the Northeast. In New York, liberal (Marxist?) Democrat Bill de Blasio won by 49 points (but apparently lost the Upper East Side and Staten Island). In the nonpartisan race between two liberal Democrats in Boston, the 4-point winner was Marty Walsh, considered the slightly more liberal one because of his union support. In that race, traditionally conservative, heavily white South Boston joined with the mostly black neighborhoods of Roxbury and Dorchester behind Walsh. The relatively conservative West Roxbury and the lefty-but-affluent neighborhoods of Back Bay and Beacon Hill went for John Connolly. Is it progress that Boston was divided by economic class instead of race?

Photo of Chris Christie by Bob Jagendorf (Manalapan, NJ) via Wikimedia Commons.

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