In his victory speech Tuesday night, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie pitched his sweeping victory as a national model for the GOP — and openly hinted that it would be a blueprint for a 2016 presidential bid.
Christie assembled a winning coalition in the solidly-Democratic state by reaching out to groups that don’t traditionally back GOP candidates. He won 57 percent of women, 51 percent of Hispanics, even 21 percent of African-Americans — the same groups of voters the GOP has struggled to attract in recent national races.
But his reelection strategy also underlines a challenge for Christie’s presidential aspirations: The same attributes that make him a strong general election candidate could hurt him during the GOP’s nominating fight. On the way to his reelection rout, Christie has given potential 2016 GOP rivals openings to attack his conservative credentials on several key issues:
1. Gun control: In April, Christie unveiled proposals to strengthen New Jersey’s gun control laws that promised to win him favor at home but threatened his standing with national gun rights advocates. When the state legislature sent three anti-gun bills featuring similar proposals to Christie’s desk in August, he refused to sign the measures, sending two back to the legislature and vetoing a ban (which he had proposed in April) on the Barrett .50 caliber rifle. Democrats howled, accusing Christie of flip-flopping in an effort to appease his critics on the right. Yet some conservatives still don’t trust Christie on guns. Even after Christie refused to sign the three bills, National Review‘s Charles Cooke wrote that the governor has “one of the worst Second Amendment records in the country.”
2. Gay marriage: Influential social conservatives, like Iowa’s Bob Vander Plaats, balked last month when Christie dropped his appeal of a ruling legalizing gay marriage in the Garden State. When the state Supreme Court rejected Christie’s attempt to delay the first same-sex weddings while it heard his appeal, the governor said the court made it clear that it intended to uphold the lower court’s decision. Christie can point to the fact that he previously vetoed a bill legalizing gay marriage, but critics argue that he gave up the fight too early in the face of mounting pressure in a Democrat-dominated state. For some social conservatives, the move seemed to confirm already-lingering questions about Christie’s commitment to their issues. “This just adds more concern to those cautionary flags,” Vander Plaats said.
3. Immigration: Christie has made reaching out to Hispanics a top priority in his reelection bid. As part of that push, he walked back his previous opposition to DREAM Act-like legislation during a speech to a Latino group in October. Christie’s team is betting that a demonstrated ability to appeal to Hispanics in New Jersey can go a long way to convincing Republicans that he offers an antidote to one of the biggest problems plaguing the GOP. But appearing soft on immigration carries considerable risk, as Sen. Marco Rubio and his declining 2016 stock can attest.
4. Close relationship with Democrats: Christie’s controversial embrace of President Obama in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy led some Republicans to question his loyalty to the party. Some of Christie’s actions during his reelection fight could provide opponents with additional fodder to make similar attacks. National Republicans privately fumed when Christie scheduled the U.S. Senate special election to replace the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg for October, accusing the governor of sacrificing the GOP’s ability to pick up the seat in favor of his personal political interest. Meanwhile, in the closing weeks of his campaign, Christie made a habit of appearing with some of the state’s most prominent Democrats, like Sen. Cory Booker and Garden State Democratic power brokers George Norcross and Joe DiVincenzo, in an effort to tout his bipartisan successes in a blue state. While Christie’s ability to work across party lines serves him well in New Jersey and could be an asset in the general election in 2016, it could hurt him with Tea Party supporters during the GOP nominating process.