New Jersey Governor Chris Christie beat his Democratic opponent to win a second term and bragging rights as a potential 2016 Republican candidate for U.S. president who can appeal across party lines.
The incumbent was declared the winner by the Associated Press and CNN moments after polls closed, drawing cheers from the crowd of Christie supporters at the Asbury Park Convention Hall. His challenger, state Senator Barbara Buono, conceded the race less than an hour later. With 42 percent of precincts reporting, Christie led Buono, 60 percent to 39 percent.
Christie won over Democrats and independent voters with his leadership after Hurricane Sandy struck in October 2012. The rout makes him a stronger contender for president, said Julian Zelizer, who teaches history and public affairs at Princeton University. The governor’s challenge now is turning around the state’s laggard economy, an area that disappoints New Jerseyans in polls and threatens his national standing, Zelizer said.
“The inability to really generate economic activity may leave a bad mark on his reputation,” Zelizer said. “That’s where he puts all his emphasis in the next few years.”
In 2011, Christie turned down appeals from Republican leaders and donors, including Home Depot Inc. co-founder Kenneth G. Langone, to take on Democrat Barack Obama in 2012. During this year’s campaign, the governor said his focus was on a second term, not a 2016 run, though he didn’t rule it out.
In a Nov. 4 Quinnipiac University poll of likely New Jersey voters, 60 percent of women had a favorable opinion of Christie, which “might be unheard-of for a Republican officeholder,” said Maurice Carroll, director of the Hamden, Connecticut, school’s poll. It also showed 94 percent of Republicans, 64 percent of independents and 30 percent of Democrats backed the governor.
Christie praised Obama’s response to Sandy ahead of last year’s Election Day, angering some in his party who blamed him for Republican challenger Mitt Romney’s loss. In January, Christie attacked Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives for delaying a vote on disaster aid.
During last month’s partial government shutdown, which was driven by the Republican Tea Party faction in Congress, Christie criticized Obama and lawmakers from both sides of the aisle.
“If the Republican Party is torn between the Tea Party and those who want it to move toward the middle, Christie would be that candidate, at least right now,” Krista Jenkins, director of the PublicMind poll at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Madison, New Jersey, said by telephone on Oct. 30.
Christie is the only U.S. governor seeking re-election this year. In a Rutgers-Eagleton poll released Oct. 23, 85 percent of respondents approved of his post-Sandy work. Yet on their biggest concerns, the economy and jobs, his rating fell to 42 percent, and on taxes, it dropped to 38 percent.
“He wants to be able to communicate to a primary electorate in 2016 that the central issues that dominate the campaign he was able to handle in his home state,” Jenkins said.
Christie won points in Democratic cities such as Paterson and Newark, where he pushed for privately run charter schools, and was endorsed by Latino and black groups. During the campaign, 60 Democratic elected officials endorsed him, with several saying it was their smartest move because he was likely to win.
Compared with his 2009 race, the governor gained support from younger voters, blacks, Hispanics and women — groups that Republicans have struggled to win over, according to New York Times exit polls.
Speaking to the Republican National Committee in August, Christie made the case that his success in a Democrat-dominated state offers lessons for his party at the national level. In surveys leading up to his re-election, he attracted support from independents, women and minority voters -- all potential linchpins to winning the White House.
“I think Chris Christie can be very competitive here, if he chooses to run,” A.J. Spiker, chairman of the Iowa Republican Party, said in an Oct. 25 interview. “From what I hear from people, even if they disagree with Chris Christie on a lot of issues, they do like that he’s a very blunt, vocal person who doesn’t hold back.”
Christie “could easily become our nominee and save our party,” Romney said Nov. 3 on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
“They don’t come better than Chris Christie,” Romney said. Christie is “one of the very strongest lights of the Republican Party.”
After a Nov. 4 campaign stop at a Nutley diner, Christie told reporters he wasn’t concerned about meeting expectations for a rout the next day.
“Whatever the margin is, it is,” he said. “I’m sure you’ll all have opinions about whether it may be enough or not enough -- that’s fine. As long as everybody still calls me governor again in January of 2014, then it’s enough and nothing else matters.”
Also at stake in the election was control of the legislature, where all 120 seats were up for grabs. Democrats currently lead the Senate, 24-16, and the Assembly, 46-32, after two of their members recently resigned. Before the election, some Democrats said they were worried that votes for the popular governor would trickle down the ballot.
Buono, 60, a lawyer from Metuchen, emerged as her party’s choice to take on Christie after more popular Democrats, including Cory Booker, chose not to challenge him. Booker, the former mayor of Newark, New Jersey’s biggest city, ran instead in last month’s special election to fill the opening left by the June death of U.S. Senator Frank Lautenberg, an 89-year-old Democrat. Booker, 44, won and took office on Oct. 31.
Sandy, the largest Atlantic storm in history, devastated New Jersey’s 127-mile (200 kilometer) coastline, damaging 346,000 homes and plunging much of the state into darkness. A month before it hit, surveys showed New Jersey voters were split on whether Christie deserved a second term, and Booker’s popularity gaining. The storm propelled Christie into daily televised recovery briefings, surveying damage with Obama and hugging victims amid the ruins.
Buono entered the legislature in 1994 and the Senate in 2002. During the campaign, she portrayed herself as empathetic to the poor and middle class, having worked to put herself through college and law school and for a time relying on food stamps. She portrayed Christie as a favorite of the rich and an enemy of women and gays, though the message was dwarfed by his political celebrity and cash advantage.
“Buono gave it a good New Jersey try, but she wasn’t stronger than the ‘Christie Storm,’” Carroll said on Nov. 4.
After conceding, Buono said the race was about people “who wanted nothing more than a shot,” a population of women, gays, immigrants and the unemployed whom Christie’s policies had bypassed.
“We took on the bosses and the political machines that have defined New Jersey politics for far too long,” she told supporters at a Metuchen restaurant, after calling Christie to congratulate him on his win.
Christie raised $13.2 million of private and public money for the campaign and entered the final stretch with $4 million in cash on hand, according to the state Election Law Enforcement Commission. Buono raised $2.8 million and entered the final 11 days with $276,845. Both will have six months after the election to close the accounts and give the state any unspent funds.
During an Oct. 25 interview in Trenton, Christie called the race “all-consuming” and said those duties in addition to governing left him no time to think about any plan for 2016.
“I’m not stupid; I know it’s out there but I’ve got to tell you I don’t even have the capacity to focus on it right now if I wanted to,” he said. “I won’t be ambiguous about it at all but I’m not ready to deal with it now.”
A win gives Christie the governor’s job through January 2018. If elected president in 2016, he would enter the White House in January 2017. The rigors of a national campaign and federal campaign-finance laws may force him to step down in Trenton even earlier, putting the state in the hands of his lieutenant, Kim Guadagno, who was unknown to more than 70 percent of voters in recent surveys.
Christie was the first New Jersey governor re-elected since Republican Christine Todd Whitman in 1997. That year was also the last time a Republican was elected New Jersey governor.
State voters haven’t elected a Republican to the Senate since Clifford Case won in 1972, and have backed Democrats for president since 1992. Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than 700,000, while the 2.6 million independents top members of both parties.
Democrats controlled New Jersey’s governor’s office from 2001 to 2009, when Christie ousted Jon Corzine after voters rejected the incumbent’s handling of the recession that started in December 2007. Christie took office in January 2010, pledging to lower taxes and add jobs.
New Jersey has added 142,400 nongovernment jobs since February 2010, Christie’s first full month in office. That’s 59 percent of the jobs lost during the recession that began in December 2007. Neighboring New York had gained back all of the jobs it lost during that period by last year.
Under Christie, unemployment fell to 8.5 percent in August, from 9.7 percent in February 2010. That’s 1.2 percentage points higher than the U.S. average for August, and tied for the seventh-highest among the 50 states. New York’s August jobless rate was 7.6 percent and Pennsylvania’s was 7.7 percent.