¿Chris Christie, sí que puede?
It certainly looks that way, with the New Jersey governor set to cruise to re-election over his Democratic opponent, Barbara Buono on Tuesday. And when you lead in the polls by more than thirty points—as Christie does—the victory tends to be all encompassing, with every sort of micro-targeted demographic group lining up behind the winner.
But Christie’s wooing and winning of one such group in New Jersey has caught the eye of political observers, especially as attention drifts towards 2016. According to a number of recent polls, Christie is running even or barely ahead of Buono among Latino voters. These numbers are more surprising considering that Buono chose a Latina as her running mate, labor leader Milly Silva.
“The governor has built inroads into the Latino community for the past 11 years going back to his days as a U.S. attorney,” said Michael Duhaime, a top Christie advisor. “I think that as a party what we have done wrong is that we only talk to Hispanics in an election year, instead of doing it all the time. For us, there is dialogue and trust factor that we have built up.”
Christie’s strong showing among Latinos comes as the Republican Party has looked to rebuilt its outreach to a group they lost handily in 2012 and will need in future elections as the nation's demographics shift. Last election, Romney only scored 27 percent of the Latino vote, and early attention granted to Republican Hispanic senators like Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz has been in part as the GOP looks to improve their image among Hispanics.
“If he pulls even with Buono [among Latinos] this really bodes well for his national election potential,” said Brigid Harrison, a professor of political science at Montclair State University. “The Republican Party is looking at this increasingly important demographic group and if you have a moderate candidate with a broad appeal with this constituency it makes sense to give that person a second look as a nominee.”
But whether or not Christie would be able to translate his success in New Jersey to a larger stage if he embarks on a widely expected run for the presidency remains to be seen. Republican pollsters and strategists have pushed for some form of immigration legislation to pass the Congress in the hopes that doing so would remove a major reason Latinos have for not been voting for the GOP. Latinos, by this reasoning, are, except for the immigration question, a natural Republican constituency—entrepreneurial, socially conservative and family centered.
Christie had previously been on the record opposed to a local version of the DREAM Act, which would allow undocumented students to pay the same tuition at state colleges as residents. Back in 2011, in a speech at the Reagan Library, Christie couched his opposition as a matter of fiscal conservatism, saying, “I want every child who comes to New Jersey to be educated, but I don’t believe that for those people who came here illegally, we should be subsidizing with taxpayer money, through in-state tuition, their education.”
Rick Perry, the governor of Texas and a GOP candidate for president—and another potential candidate in 2016—had said previously that such a position was heartless. In California, Christie shot back: “That is not a heartless position, that is a common-sense position.”
Last month, however, Christie came out in favor of the measure, saying that the state’s fiscal position had improved enough to make granting in-state tuition for the undocumented viable.
"What I always have said is that when economic times got better, that that would be one of the things that I would consider," Christie said during a debate with Buono at Montclair State University. "It’s time now — given that economic times are getting better and the state budget revenues are going up."
The Christie camp appears to be doubling-down on the notion that the GOP will nominate someone seen as the most electable candidate in 2016, rather than one that can win over the base. But Christie’s strong showing in New Jersey among Hispanics may not be enough to convince Republican bigwigs that he can do the same thing nationwide. For one thing, the Hispanic population in New Jersey, while large and diverse, is not representative of the population in the rest of the country. Only Florida boosts more Cuban-American voters, a constituency that has traditionally voted Republican (One of New Jersey’s U.S. Senators, Robert Menendez, is Cuban-American.) In 2009, Christie eked out a slight win against incumbent governor Jon Corzine and still garnered 32 percent of the Hispanic vote. For him to show broad appeal to Latinos nationwide he may have to do better than the 40 percent he is currently polling among Latinos against weak Democratic opposition.
The Christie campaign’s current showing among Latinos is impressive given that it has been a campaign that that is not without some hiccups. Christie has been criticized by some Hispanic groups for choosing as his running mate Kim Guardano, a former sheriff of Monmouth County. In her previous job, Guardano was one of the few New Jersey officials to implement a controversial federal program that permitted local police to check the immigration status of those they stop. And earlier this month, the Latino Action Network, a New Jersey civil rights group, filed a legal complaint against the administration accusing it of failing to provide equal access to information to Spanish speakers affected by Hurricane Sandy. According to the group, the website RenewJerseyStronger.org provided Spanish speakers with incorrect hours of operation and deadlines, and the appeals process for those denied grants was only in English.
The Christie campaign credits his showing among Latinos not just to his outreach but to his pushing for a number of policies appealing to that community, including more charter schools and education reform. Still, the campaign has made a point of reaching out to Latinos, spending over $1 million on Spanish-language TV ad buys and advertising heavily on Spanish radio and through direct mail.
“His efforts to reach Hispanic voters through Hispanic media, his approach to the Hispanic electorate will be a model for Republicans going forward,” said Gil Medina, a former aide to former New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman and a major Christie backer.
“There is a demographic situation in this country that will make it very challenging for Republicans to win national elections unless they are able to connect with Hispanic voters, and what we are seeing is that is possible for a Republican leader to do that.”
Earlier this month Christie received the endorsement of the Latino Leadership Alliance of New Jersey, an umbrella group of Latino civic and business leaders. It was an endorsement Christie fought hard for four years ago, but was not able to snag.
“In the past, what has happened is that the Democratic Party that we have endorsed a lot of times has taken us for granted and the Republican Party didn’t pay much attention,” said Martin Perez, the group’s president and the honorary chairman of the Hispanics for Christie coalition. “We have to look beyond labels and look at what is in the best interest of our community. He tries to find common ground.”