Politics

11.05.13

Why National Democrats Rolled Over for Chris Christie

Fearing an expensive lost cause, the national party took a pass on Tuesday’s election for New Jersey governor. But the decision may come back to haunt Democrats in 2016.

If Gov. Chris Christie wins reelection Tuesday by even a fraction of the margin predicted by New Jersey pollsters, he’ll owe his easy victory to one group in particular—national Democrats, who all but ignored his race against Democratic state Sen. Barbara Buono.

From President Obama, who twice toured New Jersey with Christie after Hurricane Sandy and then failed to endorse Christie’s challenger, to the Democratic National Committee, which sent just one staffer to the state to fortify local efforts, to major donors and high-profile party leaders such as Bill and Hillary Clinton, powerful Democrats have stayed on the sidelines in the blue state contest that top brass deemed a loser from the start.

The result is a Republican governor cruising to double-digit reelection in a state where Democrats have a 700,000-voter advantage but are losing or breaking even with Christie among independents, women, Hispanics, and young voters, all groups Democrats typically dominate and which Republicans will need to win over nationally to win the White House. The script for Chris Christie 2016 writes itself, and Democrats will have helped pen the first draft.

“When we started looking at his reelect numbers, he was just above 50 percent. That meant he was formidable but movable,” said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute. “Early on, Barbara Buono could have appealed to the national electorate by saying, ‘Look, we need to bloody this guy up before 2016 because he’s the biggest challenge going into that race.’ But she never was able to articulate that…so Democrats stayed out of that race and Chris Christie basically got a free pass.”

National Democrats stand by the decision not to play seriously in New Jersey, according to several who spoke with The Daily Beast. The calculation was two-fold, they said. First, the money required just to land a punch on Christie in the pricey New York and Philadelphia media markets could fund an entire campaign somewhere or sometime else when a Democrat had a chance of winning.

“When you have someone this powerful and this popular, you shrug it off and wait for the next one,” a top Democratic donor said of Christie. “It’s not worth the financial investment to try to take him down or out.”

“If I were running the DNC for the day, I’d say, ‘Let’s turn this race around because he is at least perceived as a moderate, and why do we want to confront that in 2016?’”

Second, Democrats firmly believe that no matter how strong Christie looks on Election Day 2013 in New Jersey, the Republican nominating gauntlet will eat his 2016 presidential candidacy alive before he ever gets a chance to face off against a Democrat in a general election.

“When it comes to national elections, we’ve seen how efficient and effective Republicans are at destroying each other’s reputations, so I’ll leave it to them,” said Robert Zimmerman, a national committeeman for the DNC. “Chris

Christie is a very powerful national candidate, but the question is can a mainstream Republican be elected by the Republican Party today? No.”

Local Democrats said they disagreed with the choice to give Christie free rein in 2013, if only because of the emerging storyline of the governor’s significant crossover appeal. “If I were running the DNC for the day, I’d say, ‘Let’s turn this race around because he is at least perceived as a moderate, and why do we want to confront that in 2016?’” said one New Jersey Democrat involved in the election. “But the reality is, ‘We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.’”

Monmouth’s Patrick Murray says Christie’s bipartisan appeal is real but rooted far more in his take-charge personality than his conservative politics: “It’s definitely about his style. When he was first elected, people told us they didn’t like what he was doing, but they liked the way he did it.”

All of that changed, however, when Hurricane Sandy struck and Christie went about the work of rebuilding the state, a mission that put Christie famously at odds with House Republicans in Washington when conservatives blocked funding for recovery aid to New Jersey.

“Gov. Christie’s governing style is made for a disaster,” Murray said. “He took on his own party when he needed to, and he got a lot of credit from Democrats for doing that. This is a guy who has great credibility as someone who can work across the aisle but also take charge, that’s the brand that he’s built.”

But Matt Farrauto, communications director for the New Jersey Democratic State Committee, says the media coverage of Christie’s outsize persona and boardwalk photo ops with Obama have obscured his record on property taxes, gun control, and same-sex marriage, issues that would put most New Jersey voters on the opposite side of the governor they are poised to reelected by a landslide. “If they’re forced to endure another four years of Chris Christie, voters will quickly they’ll realize they missed a golden opportunity to elect someone with their interests in mind, not his own,” Farrauto said.