By Alana Semuels
8:28 PM EST, November 5, 2013
HOBOKEN, N.J. -- Republican Gov. Chris Christie romped to an easy reelection in this blue-leaning state Tuesday, according to Associated Press projections, appealing to voters across ideologies after a race that set him up for a potential presidential contest in 2016.
Christie played down his political leanings during the campaign against Democrat Barbara Buono, with a barrage of television ads that did not mention the word “Republican” once, instead focusing on times he worked with both political parties. That strategy was essential to winning over voters in New Jersey, where Democrats have the edge in registered voters.
While he was running for a second term as the state’s governor, even Christie acknowledged that the subtext was his expected run for the White House in three years.
“Christie for president starts at about 8:05 p.m. Tuesday, as soon as the polls close,” said Maurice Carroll, director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute.
A Quinnipiac poll of presidential prospects taken last month showed that Christie trailed behind Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky among likely Republican voters, but was more popular than Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. Leaks published in the recent book “Double Down” indicate that Mitt Romney vetted Christie as a possible running mate in 2012, but was ultimately worried about Christie’s health and other issues. The rotund governor had lap-band surgery earlier this year, further fueling speculation about his national ambitions.
Voters have praised Christie for the way he handled Hurricane Sandy, which devastated parts of the state. He toured damaged areas after the storm with President Obama, and chastised his own party for stalling a vote on a disaster relief bill. Voters here say his style, and even his physique, make him seem more like a regular guy and less like a politician.
Greg Zannetti, 23, a teaching assistant, voted for Obama, but said that on Tuesday he voted for Christie.
“He’s a regular guy, and I like him,” Zannetti said outside of a polling station at City Hall in Hoboken, where elderly residents lounged on benches in the sun. “I think he did a good job after Sandy.”
Christie’s popularity did not appear to be enough to help Republicans take control of the New Jersey state Legislature. Republicans needed five more seats to get a majority in the House, and nine to take control of the Assembly. Though Christie was a strong candidate at the top of the ticket, Democratic candidates got support for their history of working with him, said Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics.
New Jersey voters overwhelmingly voted for Newark Mayor Cory Booker, a Democrat, to fill a U.S. Senate seat just a few weeks ago, indicating that they would vote for bipartisanship when given the chance, Dworkin said. This likely helped incumbents in the state.
“The recent government shutdown framed the last two weeks of that race and, very clearly, New Jerseyans voted against those who would shun deal-making,” he said. “They endorsed a particular approach to politics where bargaining, negotiation and compromise aren't negatives.”
Whether that approach helps Christie in a presidential contest is another question. Polls show that New Jersey voters who support him for governor may not support him for president. That’s partly because Christie has conservative positions on issues such as abortion and gay marriage, and voters are more likely to pay attention to social issues in a national election than in a statewide one.
Christie has appeared to move toward the center in recent weeks, dropping an appeal that sought to block gay marriage in New Jersey, and saying he supported in-state tuition breaks for undocumented immigrants. But a danger for Christie is that he has moved enough to the center to anger those on the right, but holds enough conservative positions to turn off those elsewhere on the political spectrum.
Megan Brewer, 27, planned to vote for Christie for governor. She likes how he handled Sandy, how he balanced the state’s budget and how he tried to make teacher unions more accountable. But she wondered whether his recent statements on undocumented immigrants reflected Christie’s true feelings. Her doubts are enough to keep her from supporting him in a national election, she said.
“It’s just a political play,” she said of his recent pronouncements. “I don’t think we really agree on social issues.”
Republicans, on the other hand, have been angered by his stance on undocumented immigrants, and by his decision to drop the appeal on the gay marriage case. That could be a big problem for Christie in 2016, said Cliff Zukin, a political science professor at Rutgers University.
“He can dominate and he can go across party lines, but with the Republicans, it’s the question of can he appeal to the very moralistic voters,” Zukin said. “Christie is not an ideologue, and that could be a problem.”
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