(Frank Donatelli) – The biggest winner in the 2013 off-off-year elections was clearly New Jersey governor Chris Christie — and if past performance is any indication, we can expect heavy traffic along the road to Trenton in the next several years.
Christie’s triumph would be singularly impressive, even in a good Republican year. The first pro-life Republican governor in one of the nation’s bluest and most traditionally left-of-center states in two decades, the ex-prosecutor proved his vote-getting prowess beyond a reasonable doubt, winning a landslide reelection victory of nearly two to one.
Exit polls from New Jersey point to the breadth of Christie’s appeal, even among non-traditional constituencies. Christie carried two-thirds of independents and seniors, three-quarters of working-class whites, and even ran competitively among union households (46 percent) and Democrats (32 percent).
It’s way too soon for talk of presidential politics to advance beyond the parlor-game stage, but there’s little doubt Christie’s win will immediately propel him to the top of the GOP presidential pecking order.
Christie’s situation is reminiscent of what happened to then–Texas governor George W. Bush in 1998.
That year, too, Republicans suffered stunning losses: For the first time since 1822, the party out of power actually lost seats during the so-called six-year itch” — the midterm elections during the incumbent president’s second term. Then, just as now, Republicans had been hurt by perceived legislative overreach during the twin government shutdowns of 1995 and 1996, and their overreaction to the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Reeling from defeat, House Republicans soon forced the retirement of then-speaker Newt Gingrich.
Swimming against those tides, Bush emerged with a similarly lopsided reelection victory in the Texas governor’s race, winning women and an impressive — for a Republican — 40 percent of Hispanics and 27 percent of African Americans.
Then, like now, the GOP was still staggering from a devastating presidential defeat, and George W. Bush suddenly emerged as the one candidate who appeared capable of assembling a winning Republican majority by reaching well beyond the party’s traditional base.
New Jersey is no Texas, however, which makes Christie’s win even more impressive than George W. Bush’s Texas victory 15 years ago. Even in blue New Jersey, Christie’s 51 percent showing among Hispanics actually trumped Bush’s previous high-water mark by eleven points.
In the weeks following his 1998 victory, Bush rapidly gained the backing of the Republican establishment — support that withstood even the heavy onslaught of Senator John McCain following his surprise victory in the New Hampshire primary. In presidential primaries, early support means everything: Donors and activists naturally want to be with a winner, and they’re willing to sign on early if they believe they’ve found the right candidate.
Republicans have lost the last two presidential elections because they have done poorly with the fastest growing segments of the national electorate — women, young voters, and people of color. Republicans have not won the youth vote in a presidential year since 1988 and Mitt Romney received all-time low percentages of African Americans and Latinos. States with a combined 240 electoral votes have voted for the Democratic presidential nominee in five consecutive elections dating back to 1988.
In contrast, Christie’s case begins with the fact that he can compete in Democratic states and among the fastest growing segments of the new American electorate.
To be sure, Christie faces major challenges. He has few ties with social conservatives and his brusque manner will likely not be as well-received in the Heartland as in New Jersey. Moreover, some Republicans continue to be irritated with what they perceive as his overly enthusiastic embrace of President Obama following the devastation of Hurricane Sandy in the closing days of the 2012 presidential campaign.
The challenge before him is to reach out and listen to the concerns of party workers and activists and to emphasize his bona fides as a right-of-center problem solver in a traditionally Democratic, center-left state — borrowing a page from George W. Bush, the “compassionate conservative” who in 2000 stressed his ability to work with Democrats in the Texas legislature on issues like education reform.
Christie’s supporters believe it’s precisely the profile voters are looking for after 8 years of a divisive and detached president more known for lofty rhetoric than accomplishments of substance.
(Frank Donatelli was political director for President Ronald Reagan and is now chairman of GOPAC, America’s premiere organization for educating and electing the next generation of Republican leaders. This column first appeared in National Review Online on November 6, 2013)