Governor Chris Christie buttressed his profile as a different kind of Republican with potentially broad appeal in a race for the White House by ending a legal effort to stop same-sex marriages in New Jersey.
He also may have put another obstacle in his path should he seek the party’s 2016 presidential nomination.
Gay marriage, which began yesterday in New Jersey, is increasingly more acceptable to the independent voters it takes to win the presidency. The challenge for Christie, 51, is that opposition to same-sex weddings remains strong within the Republican Party, especially in states including Iowa and South Carolina that dominate the start of the nomination process.
“He wants to have his cake and eat it too, and it doesn’t help him in Iowa,” said Steve Scheffler, a Republican National Committee member from the state where caucuses traditionally begin the nomination balloting. “Maybe that works on the East Coast, but not in Middle America.”
Christie, a Roman Catholic, has said marriage should be restricted to a man and a woman and changing that to allow gays to wed should be decided by each state’s voters, not legislatures or courts. Still, Scheffler predicted “a lot of caucus voters will look very dimly on” the governor’s decision yesterday to drop an appeal of a New Jersey judge's ruling allowing same-sex nuptials.
“It’s another road down a slippery slope of codifying homosexual marriage, which is going to have some long-term detrimental effects on America,” said Scheffler. “It’s both disgusting and discouraging.”
The risk for Republicans in national elections, which party leaders have warned about, is that maintaining an aggressive opposition stance on such issues as same-sex marriage and abortion rights could widen gaps in support evident in polling.
President Barack Obama in his successful re-election last year garnered 55 percent of the women’s vote, 11 percentage points more than Republican challenger Mitt Romney. Among voters younger than 30, Obama won 60 percent -- more than 20 points higher than Romney’s share.
A Bloomberg National Poll showed that 7 in 10 Americans younger than 35 support letting gay couples marry. Among all Americans, 55 percent back same-sex marriage, according to the Sept. 20-23 poll. Yet the survey also showed a majority of Republicans, 52 percent, oppose the practice.
As part of analyzing lessons from the 2012 election, a Republican National Committee report released in March said the party “must in fact and deed be inclusive and welcoming,” or risk alienating young people, women and others “who agree with us on some but not all issues.”
The party’s religious conservative wing has rejected that approach, and it demonstrated its strength in April when the RNC approved a resolution affirming positions including that marriage should be between a man and a woman.
Christie vetoed in February 2012 a bill to allow same-sex marriage in New Jersey. His continued personal opposition to same-sex unions remains “likely to be the critical point” in how the issue affects his possible presidential bid, rather than the dropping of the legal battle against it in New Jersey, said Whit Ayres, a Virginia-based Republican consultant.
The New Jersey Supreme Court cleared the path for gay marriages to begin yesterday with a unanimous ruling on Oct. 18 denying a stay sought by Christie of a lower court’s decision.
“Although the governor strongly disagrees with the court substituting its judgment for the constitutional process of the elected branches or a vote of the people, the court has now spoken clearly,” Christie’s office said in a statement on his decision to drop an appeal of the lower-court ruling.
Christie isn’t alone among potential Republican presidential contenders in distancing himself from the party’s platform position on gay marriage. Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky has come out against a federal law banning same-sex nuptials, saying the question should be left to the states.
Polls show Christie with a comfortable lead over Democrat Barbara Buono in his bid for a second term in New Jersey’s Nov. 5 election, and he has been making the case that his success as the governor of a Democrat-dominated state offers lessons for his party at the national level.
“If we don’t win, we don’t govern,” Christie said in an August speech at an RNC gathering in Boston. “I am going to do anything that I need to do to win.”
He questioned that some in his party seem more interested in winning ideological debates than elections. “I think we have some people who believe our job is to be college professors,” he said.
The comments were in keeping with the trademark Jersey-style bluntness that has helped establish him as a national figure. Ayres, in an interview, called him an “unconventional politician, by definition.”
Even before his decision on the gay marriage appeal, Christie had sparked some ill-will within his party stemming from his willingness to appear with and praise high-profile Democrats.
Fellow Republicans were especially critical of Christie for accompanying Obama on a tour of the New Jersey shore Oct. 31 to inspect damage caused by Hurricane Sandy, during which the governor lauded the initial federal response -- words some said gave the president a pre-election boost against Romney.
Some party colleagues also were aggrieved when Christie criticized Speaker John Boehner of Ohio and other Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives for delays in approving federal assistance in Sandy’s aftermath.
As Christie hones his approach to voters, other Republicans are taking a more direct line in appealing to party activists.
Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, who spearheaded the push to defund Obama’s health-care law that led to the 16-day federal government shutdown earlier this month, received an eight-minute standing ovation in his home state over the weekend at an event organized by the Texas Federation of Republican Women. He’ll be in Iowa later this week to speak at an annual Ronald Reagan dinner, where future presidential candidates often have been showcased.
Christie has been coy about his longer-range plans as he focuses on his re-election.
“This is the last political campaign that I’ll ever run in New Jersey,” he said during a debate with Buono last week, while brushing off questions about a presidential bid.
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