Expecting a whopping victory Nov. 5 in Democratic-leaning New Jersey, 51-year-old Gov. Chris Christie signals that the GOP’s path to the White House doesn’t go through the Tea Party or other conservative groups. Christie’s moderate politics play well in New Jersey but not in the bruising Republican presidential primaries, a hotbed of conservative activism. When the dust settles from next year’s midterm elections, a bevy of GOP presidential hopefuls will begin to emerge, dominated by national conservative personalities like Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fl.), Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), among others. With the Republican National Committee run by 41-year-old Tea Party favorite Reince Priebus, it’s going to be difficult to not fall into the same old trap. President Barack Obama trounced his GOP competition in 2008 and 2012.
Representing the GOP in 2008, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) allowed conservatives to pick his ultraconservative running mate, former Alaska, Gov. Sarah Palin. McCain lost the election by 9%, a stunning victory for upstart Obama but, more importantly, an equally predictable defeat for conservatives. Today’s GOP strategists blame McCain’s loss on the fact he wasn’t conservative enough. Party officials insist, if only the GOP had run a true conservative at the top to the ticket. McCain didn’t help matters setting the GOP in the wrong direction, touting Palin as the future of the Party. With more hindsight, the exact opposite was the case. McCain didn’t man-up, admitting that his consultants and the RNC hurt his chances by picking a right wing extremist to run on a national ticket. Christie’s expected landslide reelection tells a different story about moderate Republicans.
History repeated itself in 2012. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney allowed the RNC to pick Tea Party favorite House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan as his running mate. Once Ryan naively talked about reforming Medicare and Social Security, Romney watched his campaign sink quickly. While other factors, including an improving economy, hurt Romney’s fortunes, picking Ryan repeated McCain’s past mistakes. On the eve of a landslide victory, Christie told New Jersey Republicans that the GOP needed to go soft on ideology and find common ground with mainstream voters. When GOP presidential candidates jockey for position next year, right wing ideologues will drown out moderate voices like Christie. Christie prefers to talk about jobs over the Tea Party’s anti-government or anti-abortion rhetoric that dominates GOP debates.
Unlike the Tea Party and current RNC leadership, Christie argues that ideological purity is less important than relating to the needs of mainstream voters. Focusing on abortion or ending entitlements inflames the opposition and polarizes mainstream Republican voters. Most mainstream Republican voters don’t like Obamacare but they’re not willing to shutdown the government and default the country to stop implementation. Christie’s example in New Jersey runs counter to GOP frontrunners like Paul and Cruz, whose message energizes the conservative base but doesn’t play well with independents and moderate Republicans in national elections. If Christie decides to run for president in 2016, he’ll be battling the same forces that tanked the Party in the last two elections. Christie’s middle-of-the-road politics are precisely what the GOP needs to win national elections.
New Jersey represents a good test case for the path back for the GOP. If the RNC learns anything from New Jersey, it’s that a moderate Republican can command a broad coalition to win elections. Christie’s appeal from moderate Republicans and independents stems from his upfront, no-nonsense, pragmatic approach. “People are really inspired by Christie. He’s someone who really appeals to young voters,” said Maggie Clearly, chairwoman of t he D.C.-based Federation of College Republicans. Before the GOP gets too excited about 2016, Christie faces an uphill battle against the Tea Party, currently controlling the GOP’s base. Priebus can’t accept that if Christie wins the 2016 nomination, it would be suicidal to impose a Tea Party favorite like Rubio on the ticket. Had Romney picked Christie in 2012, he would have given Obama a better run for his money.
New Jersey’s governor’s race hints at possible challenges inside the GOP in next year’s Miderm election and beyond. Resuscitating a moribund Republican Party requires Christie’s pragmatic approach, not the RNC’s current penchant for imposing right wingers on the Party’s national ticket. “Present governor, future president,” said Dennis DeAngelo, urging a “Christie and Rubio 2016” ticket. What GOP faithful don’t get is that the Tea Party will once again sabotage a GOP presidential ticket. With Cruz shutting down the government and nearly defaulting the treasury, voters are scared-to-death over putting extreme right wingers on a national ticket. If the last two elections tell anything, it’s that the GOP primary politics don’t translate on the national stage. Christie said it best when he observed the public is sick-and-tired of watching official Washington bicker about nothing.
About the Author
John M. Curtis writes politically neutral commentary analyzing spin in national and global news. He’d editor of OnlineColumnist.com and author of Dodging The Bullet and Operation Charisma.