New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s run for a second term and his 2016 presidential ambitions will be shaped by how well he manages his state’s recovery from Hurricane Sandy.
It’s a situation that has beset other politicians. Former Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco didn’t seek re-election after facing criticism for how she dealt with Hurricane Katrina -- a storm that also blighted President George W. Bush’s legacy.
Bush’s father, President George H.W. Bush, suffered a sharp decline in support in Florida after his administration’s slow response to Hurricane Andrew in 1992. He ultimately won the state by 2 points -- down from 20 points in 1988 -- only to lose the presidential race to Bill Clinton.
Conversely, Clinton and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush learned lessons from the storm and invested in emergency-response operations that earned them high marks as managers. Former Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour saw a boost from helping his state recover from 2005’s Katrina, said W. Martin Wiseman, director of the John C. Stennis Institute of Government at Mississippi State University in Starkville.
“As long as Christie looks like he’s driving the train and not taking anything for granted, he’ll be alright,” Wiseman said. “Where he could falter is if he says the storm is over and New Jersey can move on. People’s eyes will glaze over if he’s seen as just playing to the national Republicans.”
Christie, enjoying record approval ratings for his response to the storm, said on Nov. 26 that he will seek a second term next year to help repair the state after coastal communities were ravaged. He said Sandy will cost his state about $36.9 billion -- more than its entire annual budget -- and that leaving before rebuilding is complete would be wrong.
The governor came in second after Florida Senator Marco Rubio as the Republican’s 2016 frontrunner in a Dec. 6 Public Policy Polling survey.
Speaking to reporters on Dec. 7 in Trenton, Christie said he hasn’t yet decided on the main focus of his re-election campaign. Christie said that while the storm hastened his decision to announce his candidacy, it hasn’t set his agenda.
“It’s going to take years for us to rebuild from this so I thought it was important for the people of New Jersey to know whether or not I wanted to stay on for that task,” he said. “Whether or not that will be the central focus of my campaign will be ultimately determined by me, and I haven’t determined that yet.”
Another term holds the prospect of expanding Christie’s support outside of New Jersey, amassing political favors he can cash in on during a run, and bolstering his record, said John Weingart, associate director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University. It also may hold peril if he loses or a second term is marred by a scandal, Weingart said.
“To the extent that he has national ambitions, that second term is essential,” Weingart said. Not running would be perceived as “walking away from a crisis or a fight.”
In October 2011, Christie spurned requests from party and business leaders to compete for the presidential nomination. He has said he’s open to a potential 2016 White House bid.
The first Republican elected New Jersey governor in 12 years, Christie defeated incumbent Jon Corzine in November 2009 after voters rejected the one-term Democrat’s handling of a recession that left the state with the highest unemployment rate in three decades.
Christie’s calls for smaller government and lower taxes made him a national Republican figure. He delivered the keynote address in August at the Republican National Convention as the party officially nominated former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney to challenge President Barack Obama.
Christie raised money and campaigned for Romney until Sandy. The Oct. 29 storm killed 38 New Jerseyans, blacked out 2.7 million and leveled beach towns and boardwalks.
In the weeks after the storm, Christie appeared daily for televised recovery briefings and pledged to work with Democratic U.S. senators Frank Lautenberg and Robert Menendez to win federal aid. The governor also praised Obama’s Sandy response ahead of Election Day, angering some Republicans who blamed him in part for the Democratic incumbent’s win.
New Jersey voters haven’t elected a Republican to the U.S. Senate since 1972 and backed Democrats in the last six presidential contests. Democrats control the state legislature and hold a 3-2 edge over Republicans among registered voters.
Christie’s handling of the storm won over Democrats and independents. He had a 72 percent approval rating in a Quinnipiac University poll on Nov. 27, a 16 percentage-point jump from October and its highest ever for a New Jersey governor. The survey had Christie leading his nearest potential Democratic challenger, Newark Mayor Cory Booker, by 18 percentage points.
Christie’s national grade isn’t as positive. Public Policy Polling’s survey showed that he had the lowest favorability rating among Republican voters for primary candidates, 49 percent.
“Although his cooperation with President Obama in relation to Hurricane Sandy doesn’t seem to have hurt him with Republicans in New Jersey, these numbers suggest it has caused some irritation with him outside the state,” said Tom Jensen, the poll director in Raleigh, North Carolina.
If Christie wants to run for president, “it only makes sense for him to seek this re-election,” said Krista Jenkins, director of Fairleigh Dickinson University’s PublicMind polling center in Madison, New Jersey.
“It gives him four more years to try to cultivate a sense of moderation and being a bipartisan reformer appealing to that wing of the Republican Party and electorate as a whole that feels as if the right wing of the party has alienated them,” Jenkins said.
If Christie decided to run for president in the next election, and won, he would be forced to cut a second term as governor short.
While presidents Clinton and Richard Nixon lost gubernatorial elections and went on to successful second political acts, re-election will be a crucible for Christie, said Craig Shirley, a Ronald Reagan biographer who worked on the former California governor’s two presidential campaigns.
“It’s better to run for office from office -- or at least to have been a successful two-term governor,” Shirley said. “Winning breeds winning.”