"Chris Christie 2016" begins now.
New Jersey’s Republican governor won re-election in a landslide Tuesday, and is expected to immediately begin laying the foundation of a presidential bid.
Christie’s historic victory in the liberal, reliably Democratic Garden State establishes the brash former U.S. attorney as a conservative-minded Republican who could compete nationally despite an electoral map that has grown increasingly inhospitable to GOP candidates. On top of that, his chairmanship of the Republican Governors Association, beginning this month, provides Christie with an influential platform to extend his political influence beyond Trenton.
Running the RGA offers Christie a power base inside the national Republican establishment — one from which he can put his personal stamp on the GOP’s brand and the party’s direction. It also affords the governor an entrée into the world of prominent Republican operatives and wealthy donors, whose support is often crucial in assembling a formidable White House campaign.
But Christie, 51, faces daunting challenges in the coming months that will test his mettle as a national political figure and presidential frontrunner.
Winning a Republican presidential primary will require him to reconnect with grassroots conservatives. They cheered him early in his first term as he battled New Jersey’s public employee unions, but turned sour in the aftermath of his post-Hurricane Sandy embrace of President Obama. A successful Christie candidacy will also hinge on surviving the kind of national media attention — intense, dawn-to-night, Twitter-driven — that has previously humbled even the most experienced politicians.
“My concern is, will his operation be able to handle the scrutiny, because they’ve had a pass this year,” a seasoned Republican operative and Christie supporter told the Washington Examiner. “I think the guy’s a lot smarter than his bluster gives off, but we’ll see.”
Christie's nearly effortless win over Democratic state Sen. Barbara Buono was a sharp contrast to his narrow 2009 victory over Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine and was driven in part by voters who have traditionally rejected Republicans in other state and national elections, including African-Americans and women.
At a time when the Republican Party's popularity is at historic lows, Christie’s overwhelming victory was a rare bright spot — and a sharp contrast to Republican Ken Cuccinelli's defeat in the Virginia governor's race. GOP operatives focused on taking back the White House in 2016 have taken notice.
Polls have long showed Christie coasting to re-election thanks to his broad appeal. The last Quinnipiac University poll showed him winning 64 percent of independents, 57 percent of women, 33 percent of African-Americans and 30 percent of declared Democrats.
But the 2016 Republican presidential primary won’t be fought in New Jersey, whose personality is uniquely suited to Christie’s blunt, no-nonsense style. The question is whether his natural charisma and governing record translates in early primary states such as Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.
"I think he’s absolutely capable of taking the next step upward. But it’s a very different arena," said Thomas Wilson, a former state GOP chairman who consulted on Christie’s 2009 campaign. "It’s not a part of his composition to try to become something he’s not. He is who he is and that’s what he’ll take forward."
Republican presidential primaries are historically unkind to first-time candidates. But leading the RGA, whose charge is to help Republicans win gubernatorial contests, could provide Christie with valuable experience. In addition to cementing relationships with key Republican donors, the chairmanship offers the governor an excuse to travel the country and interact with party activists and state party operations, including in crucial presidential primary states such as Florida, Michigan and Ohio, which happen to feature gubernatorial races in 2014.
Running the RGA also allows Christie to test-run his political team outside of New Jersey for a full year before he has to formally build a presidential campaign. Republican victories in gubernatorial races could demonstrate Christie’s political acumen outside of New Jersey, possibly an important test of his viability in 2016.
The governors' group is based in Washington, and that means Christie will for the first time have a political base of operations adjacent to many of the players who could help him in a presidential campaign, including lobbyists and politically powerful members of Congress.
“The RGA will give him a national platform,” Republican strategist Jim Dornan said. “Not that he wouldn't be covered anyway, but this an official position with real credibility.”