New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie made an emphatic case to reshape the Republican brand Tuesday with a rousing 21-point landslide win in one of the most Democratic states in the country.
It was the first time a Republican has won more than 50 percent of a statewide vote in New Jersey since the presidential election in 1988, bolstering the case that Governor Christie alone can break through the blue-state gauntlet that has stymied GOP hopes the last two presidential elections.
Exuding a straight-talking, tough-guy persona – not a few have thrown out Tony Soprano comparisons – Christie arguably has become the most appealing and charismatic politician in the country, as well as the most visible Republican presidential hopeful at the moment.
“I did not seek a second term to do small things,” he said during his victory speech Tuesday evening, invoking the “spirit of Sandy,” the superstorm that ravaged the state a year ago. “I sought a second term to finish the job. Now watch me do it.”
“It’s no longer a job for me,” he said, later in the speech. “It’s a mission. A mission is something that is different from a job. It’s something sacred.”
His Democratic opponent, state Sen. Barbara Buono, never seemed more than an afterthought. She was ignored by essential donors and practically shunned by Democratic Party leaders wary of angering the popularly pugnacious governor. Indeed, Senator Buono struggled simply to make her name known – while Christie was able to clip a CNN mic to his tie as he stepped into a local diner election morning.
Buono bitterly denounced “the bosses and the political machines that have defined New Jersey’s politics for far too long,” thanking workers who “withstood the onslaught of betrayal from our own political party.”
As Christie racked up Democratic endorsements this week – he won 32 percent of Democrats, according to exit polls – he ended a carefully crafted gubernatorial campaign that barely tried to hide its national focus -- and its likely further goal in 2016.
And his double-digit leads in the polls throughout the campaign didn’t stop Christie from pressing his case right up to Election Day. For the past week, the governor has crisscrossed the Garden State on a 90-stop bus tour, campaigning as if his political life depended on it. His object was not simply to win, but to make an emphatic statement.
The bus tour, in fact, could easily be been seen as the kickoff of his little-doubted campaign for the White House. With a strategy designed to jump-start a Republican Party thwarted by a growing gender gap and the dearth of any significant minority support, Christie trumpeted his cross-party appeal.
Not only did Christie relentlessly court blacks and Hispanics during the final days of the campaign, he set the chattering classes abuzz when, on Monday, he campaigned with Gov. Susana Martinez, the moderate Republican from New Mexico who made history by becoming the first Latina ever elected governor in the United States.
Governor Martinez, in fact, is the only other governor Christie brought along during his entire 2013 run. Like him, Martinez is young moderate in a blue-leaning state who has worked with a Democratic legislature – although, unlike her New Jersey counterpart, she embraced the Medicaid expansion of Obamacare.
“I need you tomorrow night. I need you badly,” Christie said while campaigning with Martinez Monday. “We’ve got to deliver tomorrow, because the whole country is watching, everybody. The whole country is watching.”
The suggestive and unprecedented pairing of two moderate Republican governors would immediately address the electoral hurdles facing any GOP nominee in 2016. And given the disgust voters have expressed for the political climate in Washington, both could hammer home their anti-Beltway bonafides.
“And that will send a loud and clear message to those knuckleheads in Washington, D.C. – they’re going to see that we do it differently,” Christie said Monday. “Imagine this: Imagine that on one night in our history, the whole country is looking to New Jersey for leadership.”
His efforts paid off. The governor won an impressive 57 percent of women and took a majority of Latino voters. He even garnered 21 percent of black voters – a significant inroad for a Republican. He also won nearly half of union voters and those under the age of 30.
But questions remain. Conservative Republicans point out that the party already nominated a blue-state moderate in Mitt Romney – and he was beaten soundly by President Obama in 2012. And New Jersey’s fiscal health remains suspect: The state has some of the highest property taxes in the nation, its credit rating fell during Christie’s tenure, and poverty has reached a 52-year high.
And the conservative wing of the Republican Party, fueled by a motivated and angry tea party base, has begun to galvanize around Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul. The most common reference to Christie in deep red-state territory is RINO – “Republican in name only.”
Yet, Christie triumphed resoundingly in bluest of blue New Jersey, even while Ken Cuccinelli, the tea party favorite in the much more conservative state of Virginia, lost to Democrat Terry McAuliffe, who was hardly beloved by voters.
Still, the governor’s Jersey pugnaciousness can, at times, undermine his attempts at bipartisanship. This weekend he was caught on camera wagging his finger at a female teacher, reportedly saying, “I’m sick of you people,” after the woman asked why he called New Jersey public schools “failure factories.” (Christie claims he said no matter how much money the state spends, “it will never be enough for you people.”)
The country can expect more of this Jersey punch in the next three years.
“See, listen, we’re New Jersey,” Christie said during his victory speech. “We still fight, we still yell, but when we fight, we fight for those things that really matter in people’s lives. And while we may not always agree, we show up.”