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Why Chris Christie Might Be a Genius

Why Chris Christie Might Be a Genius

By Sean Trende - June 5, 2013

By now you’ve probably read about 1,000 versions of Chris Christie’s political obituary in the last six months, and will probably do so again in the next few months. The story is always roughly the same: Christie was already in peril in a Republican presidential primary, given his status as a relative moderate from the Northeast. Further complicating things, the Republican base believes that his effusive praise of Barack Obama’s handling of Hurricane Sandy cost Mitt Romney the 2012 election, and is furious with him.

Now, rather than appointing a senator who could make the New Jersey Senate race potentially competitive, he’s called for a snap election in mid-October, and seems favorably inclined toward appointing a placeholder who might not seek a full term. Senate Republicans are supposedly fuming, and the base can’t be far behind.

I don’t discount this line of reasoning. In fact, I think there’s a decent chance that it might be correct.

But allow me to make, if only for the sake of argument, the opposing case: That Chris Christie might just be a political genius, playing the hand he’s been dealt about as well as he can. There are three basic points here.

1. The battlefield of presidential politics is littered with the bones of politicians who started thinking about Iowa before tending to their own re-election efforts. The two that stand out in recent years are former Virginia Sen. George Allen, who was considered a 2008 front-runner before his 2006 re-election bid imploded, and Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes, who was thought to be a strong contender for 2004 before suffering a last- minute upset in 2002 after removing the Confederate emblem from the Georgia state flag, a prerequisite for a national bid.

Christie is aware that he can easily lose re-election in his blue state (albeit one with some purple hues). In 2012, the New Jersey electorate was 44 percent Democrat, 30 percent Independent, and 26 percent Republican. In 2009 -- the early stages of a perfect storm that aided Republicans -- it was 41 percent Democrat, 31 percent Republican, and 28 percent Independent. In other words, he simply can’t win re-election by just tending to his base. He needs to win Independents by at least the 30-point margin he achieved in 2009.

So while national Republicans might have preferred that Christie make the partisan move of throwing Obama under the bus over Hurricane Sandy, it probably would have doomed his re-election efforts (and wouldn’t have affected the presidential race much, if at all). This also explains, I think, his lackluster Republican convention speech. He didn’t praise Romney effusively in 2012, which means there aren’t many clips to use against him in 30-second television spots. He did his duty, nothing more.

As for the special election, the calculus looks pretty simple. I don’t think the New Jersey statute is particularly susceptible to the interpretation that the special election could be put off until 2014. Even if I’m wrong, New Jersey has one of the most liberal state Supreme Courts in the country (one of my law professors was fond of calling it the 9th Circuit of state supreme courts) and wouldn’t be eager to agree with his interpretation. I think what Christie is doing is akin to what all presidents have done with the War Powers Act: They’ve all denied its constitutionality so as not to formally relinquish their powers, but abided by it to avoid a potentially losing court fight.

So Christie’s choice was basically a special election in October or a special election in November. Why October? This is simple: He doesn’t want to just win, he wants to win overwhelmingly. Right now he is leading his opponent by over 30 points in the RCP Average. A victory that big would be headline-grabbing, and would send the message that Christie can carry unfriendly territory. Perhaps more importantly, southeast Pennsylvania gets a lot of southern New Jersey news, and a Republican who runs well in southeast Pennsylvania has a very good chance of winning that state.

Moreover, a big win could have coattails. While Republicans are unlikely to pick up the five seats they need to take over the state Senate, and are very unlikely to pick up the nine seats they would need to control the General Assembly, Christie has been very successful implementing his agenda with a fairly unfriendly legislature. Even moving the ball slightly in his direction could make a big difference in what he can accomplish in the next few years.

A special Senate election held in November -- especially a competitive one -- would change this dynamic. The Democrats’ likely nominee is Cory Booker, who is campaigning to become the first African-American elected statewide in the Garden State. He is charismatic, well-liked, and has a developed base in heavily Democratic Newark, where he is mayor. He is also likely to win the Senate seat regardless of whom Christie appoints. And the DSCC would likely descend on the state, spending even more money on get-out-the-vote efforts.

While the turnout Booker would generate would probably not be enough to deny Christie re-election, it would probably lower his numbers. It would cut into whatever coattails he can generate. And the headlines the following day would change from “Christie wins in a landslide, sets sights on White House” to “Booker is the first African-American senator from New Jersey, possible presidential contender” (with the subhead of “Christie wins by disappointing margin, faces hostile legislature”).

Christie’s solution serves all of his goals. He keeps Booker from running on the same day he does. He avoids, to a large degree, choosing between offending either conservatives or moderates with his pick; it will probably be a well-respected placeholder, who will cast relatively few votes this term. He even framed his decision pretty well for the general election: Regardless of partisan or financial pressures, the people of New Jersey deserve to have their voice heard on this as soon as possible.

Again, Christie would have preferred to avoid this battle altogether. He’d be stronger without it. But given the hand he was dealt, he seems to have played it awfully well, at least for achieving his first goal.

2. Chris Christie was unlikely to win Iowa, but his moves might help in the states where he has a realistic path to victory.

It’s a mistake to label Christie a moderate. But look at the Republicans who have won Iowa in the recent past: Rick Santorum, Mike Huckabee, George W. Bush, Bob Dole (twice). You have a farm-state Republican, two evangelical Christians, who were running as evangelical Christians (this was one of the subtexts of “Compassionate Conservatism”), and a Catholic who was a darling of social conservatives. George H.W. Bush, a sitting vice president, ran behind Pat Robertson in 1988. It is a very, very conservative electorate. In 2012, 47 percent of it identified as “very conservative,” while only 17 percent were moderate or liberal.

Chris Christie is a poor fit for the state, even setting aside his definitively Northeastern persona. He is pro-life, but he supports civil unions. He believes homosexuals are not sinners. He believes global warming is real and at least partly caused by humans. He favors some gun control measures. Beyond this, he is a rather staunch conservative. But the strikes against him are more than enough to tank his chances in Iowa.

New Hampshire is a different beast altogether. Only 21 percent of its electorate was “very conservative,” while 47 percent was moderate or liberal. This balance could shift if Democrats have a spirited primary in 2016, drawing in some moderate voters. But at the end of the day, the voters Christie needs to convince there are going to look an awful lot like the voters in New Jersey.

If he can win New Hampshire, he’d have a reasonable shot at the nomination; since 1952, the winner of the primary has lost the Republican nomination on only three occasions: 1964, 1996 and 2000. He’d have a rough time in South Carolina, and Marco Rubio has probably locked down Florida, but he could run well in the Northeastern primaries, in the Midwest, and in Mountain West states (basically, the Romney coalition). Being close to New York pretty much guarantees that he’ll have the funding he needs or a super PAC to carry him if the funding runs dry -- so long as he can win an early primary.

There are two other important things to keep in mind. The first is that the public has a very short memory. We pay lip service to this, but it is true. If Christie develops coattails and pulls in legislators who can help him push the state further rightward, all will be forgiven fairly quickly.

Second, Christie’s skills as a prosecutor really show through. He knows how to frame an argument, and how to respond to one, convincingly. If a Republican opponent goes after him for not pushing back the election date or on the cost of the special election, he will be fully believable, and probably persuasive to the average viewer, arguing that New Jersey voters deserved to have their voices heard as early as possible.

Similarly, if someone attacks him for his praise of Barack Obama, it’s pretty easy to imagine his response: “My state was hit by a Category 3 hurricane, and you wanted me to go after the president?” Or “Look, the president helped my state out and I thanked him for it. That’s just common decency. Then I campaigned for Romney.” Or any number of variants of these arguments.

Not all politicians can pull that off, but Christie might be able to. Not everyone would be persuaded by this, but some will.

3. If Christie does manage to win the Republican nomination, he will be much more formidable because of this step.

It probably goes without saying, but if he can survive the primary process, he would be a formidable candidate in the general election with these bipartisan credentials. This is especially true if the mood of the country remains unchanged. Christie is basically setting himself up to run the presidential campaign that John McCain (whose chances at the Republican nomination were also written off) hoped to run in 2000.

That sort of campaign works well for a true outsider, someone who has angered his party a bit, at a time when people are disgusted with Washington. It also works well for an “authentic” individual. Chris Christie oozes authenticity, much as McCain did not in 2008 (but did eight years earlier). It would be an interesting matchup against Hillary Clinton, who epitomizes “Washington insider” and who often suffered from a wooden persona in 2008.

None of this is to say that I think Christie will be the Republican nominee, or that he would win a general election. Some of these moves could end up blowing up in his face. But it is far too early to write his obituary; in fact, four years from now we might look back and marvel at Christie’s adroit moves. 

Sean Trende is senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He is a co-author of the 2014 Almanac of American Politics and author of The Lost Majority. He can be reached at strende@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

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