How Christie Could Hurt the GOP in 2016

If his scandal imperils his candidacy, it would leave the upscale wing of the Republican Party without an obvious choice.

TRENTON, NJ - JANUARY 9: New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie speaks about his knowledge of a traffic study that snarled traffic at the George Washington Bridge during a news conference on January 9, 2014 at the Statehouse in Trenton, New Jersey. According to reports Christie's Deputy Chief of Staff Bridget Anne Kelly is accused of giving a signal to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to close lanes on the George Washington Bridge, allegedly as punishment for the Fort Lee, New Jersey mayor not endorsing the Governor during the election. 
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Ronald Brownstein
Jan. 23, 2014, 4 p.m.

It’s far too early to say wheth­er the con­tro­ver­sies swirl­ing around New Jer­sey Gov. Chris Christie will pre­vent him from ser­i­ously com­pet­ing for the 2016 Re­pub­lic­an pres­id­en­tial nom­in­a­tion.

But Christie’s cas­cad­ing dif­fi­culties un­der­score the short­age of good op­tions for voters and donors in the party’s up­scale ma­na­geri­al wing. It’s still a big if, but should the ac­cus­a­tions be­sieging Christie un­der­mine him as a 2016 con­tender, this wing of the GOP has few ob­vi­ous al­tern­at­ives. That di­lemma cap­tures a long-term shift in the Re­pub­lic­an Party’s cen­ter of grav­ity to­ward its tur­bu­lent pop­u­list wing — whose con­front­a­tion­al cham­pi­ons (such as Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas) of­ten fright­en swing voters as much as they in­spire act­iv­ists.

As the 2012 pres­id­en­tial primar­ies demon­strated, the Re­pub­lic­an elect­or­al co­ali­tion now di­vides about evenly between a gen­er­ally af­flu­ent, col­lege-edu­cated, and of­ten sec­u­lar “ma­na­geri­al” wing and a “pop­u­list” wing com­posed largely of blue-col­lar whites and evan­gel­ic­al Chris­ti­ans.

These two groups don’t dif­fer much on policy, but they di­verge on style, em­phas­is, and pri­or­ity. The man­agers usu­ally fo­cus more on eco­nom­ic than so­cial is­sues, and they prefer can­did­ates who em­body com­pet­ence rather than rage. Pop­u­lists grav­it­ate to­ward cul­tur­ally con­ser­vat­ive war­ri­ors who prom­ise not so much to re­form or even re­dir­ect Wash­ing­ton as to raze it.

Mitt Rom­ney was the ma­na­geri­al bloc’s clear fa­vor­ite in 2012; the party’s pop­u­list side au­di­tioned an ec­cent­ric ar­ray of op­tions (from Rick Perry to Her­man Cain) be­fore mostly set­tling on Rick San­tor­um. This di­vi­sion defined the GOP primary race: Rom­ney usu­ally won col­lege-edu­cated and af­flu­ent voters, while San­tor­um typ­ic­ally ran best among work­ing-class and evan­gel­ic­al Re­pub­lic­ans. Over­all, evan­gel­ic­als made up just over half of all 2012 primary voters and gave Rom­ney less than one-third of their votes. He nev­er­the­less won the race by amass­ing a crush­ing 30-point lead over both San­tor­um and Newt Gin­grich among the re­main­ing primary voters who did not identi­fy as evan­gel­ic­als, ac­cord­ing to a cu­mu­lat­ive ana­lys­is by ABC’s Gary Langer.

If Christie ran in 2016, he might not de­pend solely on the man­agers. Mike Murphy, the vet­er­an GOP con­sult­ant, says Christie’s com­bin­a­tion of bi­par­tis­an deal-mak­ing and gruff voice-from-the-bleach­ers per­sona could al­low him to bridge the up­scale/down­scale di­vide bet­ter than Rom­ney did. Christie’s op­por­tun­ity, Murphy says, is that “he would get the coun­try club on prag­mat­ism and he might get blue-col­lar work­ing white voters on style.”

Oth­er Re­pub­lic­ans are du­bi­ous that a blue-state gov­ernor who praised Pres­id­ent Obama in 2012 and signed off on in-state tu­ition for the chil­dren of im­mig­rants here il­leg­ally will find much trac­tion in the over­lap­ping circles of blue-col­lar, evan­gel­ic­al, and tea-party Re­pub­lic­ans. “Christie even now would have a prob­lem as a fu­sion can­did­ate,” says Re­pub­lic­an poll­ster Whit Ayres, who ad­vises Sen. Marco Ru­bio of Flor­ida, an­oth­er po­ten­tial 2016 con­tender. “[Christie] does not have a lot of fans among the more con­ser­vat­ive part.”

Wheth­er Murphy or Ayres is right about the breadth of Christie’s po­ten­tial ap­peal, few doubt that his co­ali­tion in any 2016 primary bid would tilt more to­ward up­scale than down­scale voters. Which means that if Christie can’t (or won’t) run, his ab­sence would leave a big­ger void on that side of the GOP di­vide.

So far, most Re­pub­lic­an strategists cau­tiously be­lieve Christie can weath­er the al­leg­a­tions over the George Wash­ing­ton Bridge lane clos­ures and the charge from Hoboken May­or Dawn Zi­m­mer that his ad­min­is­tra­tion linked su­per­storm re­lief funds to ap­prov­al of a polit­ic­ally con­nec­ted de­vel­op­ment pro­ject. “It’s a very com­bat­ive cul­ture there,” says Murphy, who has con­sul­ted for oth­er GOP can­did­ates in the state. “If he’s [just] found guilty of be­ing from New Jer­sey, that won’t hurt him at all.” But with polls this week already show­ing dents in Christie’s im­age, and mul­tiple in­vest­ig­a­tions present­ing the risk of fur­ther rev­el­a­tions, his re­cov­ery is not guar­an­teed.

What is cer­tain is that if Christie can’t run, or is severely weakened, the ma­na­geri­al wing that has usu­ally picked the party’s nom­in­ee may find it­self without a true horse. Former Flor­ida Gov. Jeb Bush would be the most com­fort­able fall­back, but he’s dis­played no en­thu­si­asm for run­ning. Three oth­er Mid­west­ern gov­ernors — Wis­con­sin’s Scott Walk­er, Ohio’s John Kasich, and Michigan’s Rick Snyder — would at­tract no­tice, but none yet has shown quite the grav­itas or pol­ish these voters prefer. Ru­bio and Rep. Paul Ry­an of Wis­con­sin would also find ma­na­geri­al sup­port­ers, but neither seems likely to con­sol­id­ate this fac­tion as Christie might.

This po­ten­tial va­cu­um, notes John Weaver, the chief strategist for John Mc­Cain in 2008, is emer­ging even as the prag­mat­ic, white-col­lar wing is los­ing in­flu­ence and “we see an as­cend­ency of the pop­u­list, liber­tari­an, na­tion­al­ist­ic wing, which is prob­ably a little stronger than it has ever been in the mod­ern era.” Without a strong ma­na­geri­al can­did­ate as bal­last, Weaver wor­ries that likely pop­u­list con­tenders such as Cruz and Sen. Rand Paul of Ken­tucky could drag the 2016 field in­to a con­ser­vat­ive bid­ding war “that would put the party at great risk in the gen­er­al elec­tion.” Christie’s am­bi­tions might not be the only cas­u­alty if some wrong turns on eth­ics cap­size his po­ten­tial can­did­acy (to bor­row from his own mu­sic­al idol, Bruce Spring- steen) some­where in the swamps of Jer­sey.

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