I wouldn’t say that New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is the presumptive frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016—though, like Ross Douthat, I’m not sure who could beat him—but it is true that he is the official candidate of the GOP establishment. And, with a reelection coalition of Republicans, Democrats, young people, Latinos, and African Americans, Christie stands as the only potential presidential nominee that can claim a credible path to victory.
It doesn’t come as a surprise, then, to learn that his rivals are already throwing shade in his direction. NBC News has a good round-up of the Republican presidential contenders who have opened fire on the New Jersey governor:
“Clearly [Christie] was able to speak to the hopes and aspirations of people within New Jersey,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) told CNN. “That’s important. We want to win everywhere and Gov. Christie has certainly shown he has a way of winning in New Jersey, in states like New Jersey… so I congratulate him on that.” In other words, as TPM put it, Rubio was saying, “Try replicating this outside of New Jersey.”
Here was Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY): "I think the Republican Party is a big party, and we need moderates like Chris Christie who can win in New Jersey in our party.” Hear that? Christie is a “moderate,” per Paul, who also knocked the Hurricane Sandy TV ads Christie ran in his re-election effort. And here was Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX): “I think it is terrific that he is brash, that he is outspoken, and that he won his race,” Cruz told ABC. “But I think we need more leaders in Washington with the courage to stand for principle. And in particular, Obamacare is not working.”
Even after the disaster of the shutdown and Ken Cuccinelli’s loss in the Virginia gubernatorial race, the operating assumption of right-wing Republicans is that success will come when conservatives take a doctrinaire approach to their ideology. The available evidence makes clear that this isn’t true—Ted Cruz, for instance, won his election, but he underperformed Romney—but this doesn’t matter to either the GOP base or lawmakers like Cruz.
This poses an obvious problem for Christie. Insofar that his message of electability has any chance of resonating with Republican primary voters, it will be because they have given up the quest for purity, and are desperate to win. which means that, for Christie, the best thing that could happen is for Republicans to have a terrible 2014. If the GOP continues down its path of extremism, and loses its shot at capturing the Senate as a result, Christie has perfect ground for making his pitch.
Unfortunately for him, the more likely outcome is that Republicans do pretty well. The combination of a sluggish economy and voter discontent will hurt incumbents, which threatens the Democratic majority in the Senate and precludes the party from making real gains in the House. And a GOP base that does well—or even okay—in next year’s midterms is one that doesn’t have much interest in Christie’s message.