Chicago Tribune: What Christie win should tell us

November 8, 2013 

In June 2011, a poll confirmed that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie was losing favor with his constituents. His approval rating hit 44 percent, the lowest level to that point of his time in office, and just 36 percent among women.

Said Maurice Carroll, director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, in reference to the gender gap, "I don't think he can overcome it. Men tend to vote Republican and women tend to vote Democratic, and Christie is an extreme case."

My how things changed. Christie won re-election Tuesday by a huge margin. The last Quinnipiac poll before the election gave him a 21-point lead among female voters -- even though his Democratic opponent was a woman.

He rolled to another term even though his New Jersey constituents know he's likely to turn right around and run for president in 2016.

Christie is one of the most impressive political phenomena in America today, as well as one of the most entertaining. After Superstorm Sandy pummeled the state, he infuriated many Republicans by appearing with and praising President Barack Obama, just days before the 2012 election. Yet this past Sunday, Mitt Romney gushed about the governor: "Chris could easily become our nominee and save our party and help get this nation on the right track again. They don't come better than Chris Christie."

He's not exactly what political consultants would come up with if they did months of focus-testing on what voters want. He's short-tempered, rough around the edges, prone to picking fights with his party as well as the opposition and often captured firing insults at citizens who challenge him.

Democrats know a threat when they see one -- they were busy in the days leading up to this election trying to spin the massive victory by a Republican governor in a Democratic state. Prevailing argument: The Republican Party today is so extreme it couldn't possibly embrace a candidate who has such broad appeal.

"Ever see a large man shot from a canon? Watch Jersey launch tonight, of GovChristie boomlet. But will he have place to land in this GOP?" former White House senior adviser David Axelrod tweeted Tuesday.

Actually, Christie is one of the most popular figures in the Republican Party.

Democrats know he also appeals to many of their voters. He has to, since New Jersey has far more registered Democrats than Republicans and twice voted for Obama. When Christie gave his State of the State address this year, reported Michael Crowley of Time magazine, "Trenton's Democratic legislature received him less as the pugnacious leader of the opposition than as its own conquering hero."

His reception was not because Christie isn't a conservative. A former prosecutor, he opposes abortion rights, battled to prevent gay marriage in New Jersey, vetoed tax increases, took on public employee unions and killed a planned subway tunnel to Manhattan on grounds of cost. He has defended mass surveillance by the National Security Agency. All this puts him pretty much in line with a GOP that is at a record low in national popularity.

So what's his appeal? He is given to speaking with a bluntness most politicians avoid. He's willing to tell voters unpleasant facts face-to-face. He seems incapable of the sort of phoniness voters have come to expect from politicians. He can be pragmatic without looking like a pushover.

What adds extra luster to his reputation is that in a time of gridlock and strife in Washington, he has no use for obstinate partisanship. When congressional Republicans held up disaster-relief funds after Sandy, Christie said it showed "why people hate Washington." He points to his work with the Democratic legislature as "a governing model for the nation."

That's not just rhetoric. "Christie's critics give him credit for progress in one key area: working with the Legislature to pay more toward the state's pension obligations," reports The New York Times. "The governor and the Legislature also limited the size of arbitration awards and the amount by which towns could increase property taxes, and required public employees to contribute more toward their benefits."

All this makes him the apparent front-runner for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. Christie has shown he is willing to take politically risky stands on tough problems and work across the aisle to solve them. Judging from Tuesday's results, that's not just good government. It's good politics.

-- Chicago Tribune

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