Christie: Big win, big plans?
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie won reelection handily on Tuesday, defeating the largely token opposition of Democratic state Senator Barbara Buono. With nearly all the votes counted, Christie had taken 60% to Buono’s 38%. The results were in line with polls throughout the campaign showing Christie besting his rival by as much as 28 points, marking the first time since 1988 that a Republican had taken more than 50% of the vote in a statewide election in New Jersey.
Christie’s victory was total. CNN’s exit poll showed him winning a large majority of men (63%) and beating his female challenger among women voters by 15 points (57-42). Christie took at least 54% of the vote in every age category and at least 55% in every income category except those making under $30K per year, in which Buono beat him by 2 points (49-47). He won two-thirds of independents, an outright majority of Latinos (51%), took 21% of the African-American vote, and even commanded 30% of registered Democrats.
In his victory speech – given from a podium set in the middle of the audience and often times spoken directly into the camera – Christie staked his victory on competence. He said people are tired of the bickering and fighting between the parties, and are looking for a leader who can bring the parties together to get things done.
“The people of New Jersey four years ago were downhearted and dispirited. They didn’t think government could work for them anymore. In fact, what they thought was that government was just there to take from them but not give to them, not to work with them, not to work for them. Four years later, we stand here tonight showing it is possible to put doing your job first, to put working together first, to fight for what you believe in yet still stand by your principles to get something done for the people who elected you.”
Far from the “government isn’t the solution to the problem, government is the problem” declaration of President Ronald Reagan, governing competence and bi-partisan compromise have been consistent Christie themes throughout the campaign. He touted the signature legislative achievements of his first term: pension and benefits reform, a cap on local property taxes, and reductions in state spending, as examples of bi-partisan compromise on big issues that impacted the state. It was a message that Christie made sure would resonate all the way to Washington, D.C.
“I know that if we can do this in Trenton, New Jersey, maybe the folks in Washington, D.C. should tune in their TVs right now and see how it’s done.”
Despite Christie’s impressive win, there were two disappointments for the state GOP on election night. Christie failed to carry along enough Republicans in down ballot races to flip control of either house of the state legislature, virtually guaranteeing that he will continue to have to compromise with a Democratic controlled Assembly and Senate for the remainder of his time in office. Christie did not make state house gains a priority on the campaign trail, making late and lukewarm overtures to voters on behalf of Republican legislative candidates.
Voters also approved a state constitutional amendment to increase the minimum wage by one dollar to $8.25 and provide for annual cost of living adjustments. Christie made no mention of the amendment during his campaign, even though it will likely cost the state jobs. Critics will point to these two losses to claim Christie is a “me first” politician reluctant to embrace party goals if they stand to affect him negatively. Some may note that Christie was eleven minutes into his victory speech before he even mentioned the name of his running mate, Lt. Governor Kim Guadagno.
Christie ran on the strength of his first term and did not lay out a broad agenda for the next four years, saying only, “I did not seek a second term to do the small things; I sought a second term to finish the job. Now watch me do it.” One left over piece from his first term agenda is income tax cuts. Christie pushed for an across the board 10% tax cut but was unable to get it past the legislature. A second term governor with a 22 point reelection victory under his belt should stand a better chance. He will look to keep spending in check to continue job creation and help lower the state’s unemployment rate, currently above the national rate at 8.5%.
Democrats spent 2013 trying to trip Christie up on various social issues, with the effect that battles over same-sex marriage, gun control, abortion funding, and medical marijuana are now behind him. In any case, Christie, though conservative on social issues, has never been a crusader on any of them. Chrisite’s battles with the teachers’ union – and sometimes individual teachers – will most likely continue in his second term. Education reform was a feature of his campaign. Look for Christie to push proposals for more charter schools and school choice for families stuck in failing urban school districts.
With their big victory in hand, Christie’s handlers – if not the governor himself – can turn their focus to an increasingly likely White House bid in 2016. There will be plenty of opportunity for Christie to build a national network over the next year. In two weeks, he will take the reins as Chairman of the Republican Governors Association, the powerful GOP gubernatorial campaign committee. As Chairman, Christie will play a key role in determining which candidates get critical funding for their races. He will be a sought after fundraiser and surrogate for candidates in nearly all of the 34 gubernatorial contests nationwide.
One sure sign that Christie is thinking big came in an Election Day comments he made in multiple interviews. Challenged to answer critics who say his is a typical Northeastern liberal Republican, Christie rejected the label, choosing another instead. “I’m a conservative,” he said flatly. “I’ve governed as a conservative in this state. I haven’t tried to hide it or mask it as something different.” Christie almost never uses the label “conservative” for a New Jersey audience, owing to the state’s deep-blue electoral tradition. He may be focused on doing his job as governor, but as Christie himself said during the campaign, he can walk and chew gum at the same time. “I can do my job, and deal with my future. That’s what I’m going to do.”
Mark Impomeni is a Scholar at the Center for the Study of Former Soviet Socialist Republics, a think tank dedicated to promoting democracy and free markets in the former Eastern Bloc.