Call it his Mitt Romney moment.
Chris Christie, the governor of New Jersey and one of the Republican Party’s best hopes to win the White House in 2106, is about to find out how hard it can be to be both the governor of a blue state and a potential presidential aspirant.
That’s because a pair of emotionally charged bills—one legalizing same-sex marriage, the other calling for stricter restrictions on firearms—are working their way through the New Jersey legislature. Each has the overwhelming backing of New Jersey voters, with recent polls showing that more than twice as many voters supporting each bill than oppose.
But if signing either will win Christie plaudits back home, it could be suicide for his presidential ambitions—just ask Romney, who was hailed in Massachusetts for signing a universal-health-care bill into law, only to be pummeled for it when he appeared on the national stage.
New Jersey already has some of the strictest gun-control measures in the nation, but last month, the State Assembly passed 22 measures that would, among other provisions, limit magazine size, ban the online sales of guns and ammunition, and require a firearms safety training class as a condition to obtain a permit to purchase a firearm.
The package of bills has alarmed gun enthusiasts, who see it as an even more draconian response than the bill passed in New York in the wake of December’s Newtown, Conn., elementary-school shooting. Right-wing blogs and websites have been urging conservative activists to mobilize against the bill as the State Senate prepares to draft their own gun-control measures.
“[The Christie camp] doesn’t want to accept it, but this is a bright red line test,” said Rick Wilson, a Florida-based GOP strategist. “Conservatives may be evolving on gay marriage or drug legalization, but they are not evolving on this. They are digging in. If you are in a Republican primary, do you want to be on the side of Mike Bloomberg or do you want to be on the side of the Second Amendment?”
Christie has appointed a task force to look at the issue of gun violence, but gun-control advocates say he is merely stalling.
The governor has been excoriated in the past by grassroots Republicans for expressing concern that there are “an abundance of guns out there” and for criticizing the National Rifle Association for an ad it ran immediately after the Newtown shooting.
“If someone is really a hunter or a Second Amendment person, I can get into a good philosophical argument, but I don’t believe he really believes these things,” said Loretta Weinberg, a state senator. “He’s a former U.S. attorney. Is he really one of those types who believe that people need a gun to protect themselves from their own government?”
On same-sex marriage, the Assembly and Senate passed bills last year that would have made marriage equality the law of the state. Christie promptly vetoed both measures, saying he supports the state’s civil-unions law, and telling supporters of marriage equality to put the issue to a state referendum. Advocates have resisted that move, saying fundamental rights shouldn’t be won or lost at the ballot box. Instead, they are quietly trying to pressure Christie, pointing out that Christie Todd Whitman, a Republican who served as governor of New Jersey in the 1990s, recently came out in support, as have a handful of Republicans, including Senators Rob Portman of Ohio and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, who signaled that her position on the matter was “evolving” on Thursday.
For both issues, the stakes may be higher for Christie than for any of the other top 2016 contenders. While Christie appeals to party insiders for his ability to govern as a pro-life, fiscal conservative in a liberal state, party regulars in early primary states view anyone from “Blue Jersey” with suspicion. It’s the Nixon-to-China syndrome: Republicans such as Portman or Murkowski cannot check every conservative box and still be forgiven; Christie accepts help from FEMA after a hurricane batters the Jersey coast, and he is barred from the Conservative Political Action Committee. Democrats have been hopeful that movement on this front will persuade him, but in fact, the more Republicans flip on issues around gays and guns, the better it becomes for Christie to hold out, because he begins to look more conservative by comparison.
But if Christie is pushed by CPAC and social conservatives on one side, on the other are a number of his most prominent supporters. Some of those who promised to bankroll a possible 2012 presidential campaign are also major supporters of marriage equality, including hedge-fund magnates Paul Singer, Clifford Asness, and Daniel Loeb, all of whom gave money to a similar legislative effort across the river in New York state.
“We hope he will not so much relent as wake up to the new political reality,” said Troy Stevenson, the executive director of Garden State Equality. “If the governor surely does have national ambitions, he will see this as something that can’t hurt him going into 2016.”
Already, support for marriage equality in New Jersey tops out at 64 percent, more than any other state, and has the backing of older voters and even, by a slight margin, Republicans.
Such numbers, Stevenson said, should be enough to move the governor.
“I think he is an amazingly cautious politician. He looks at everything through a political lens,” he said, adding that his group’s strategy was to show Christie that “the right thing to do is also the politically expedient thing to do.”
Advocates are hoping that, at the very least, Christie will quietly signal to Republican lawmakers in Trenton that they are free to override his veto of last year’s equality bill. So far, supporters of same-sex marriage say they are three votes short of an override in the Senate and 12 in the House.
Christie has a bit of breathing room on these issues because his presumed Democratic opponent in November, State Senator Barbara Buono, has yet to gain traction, lagging in both polls and fundraising. But those who are hoping Christie can be persuaded say that Buono is going to make a match out of the race, at that Christie will have three years then to appeal to national voters.
It may not be enough.
“Middle America is always suspect of the guys from the East Coast in these matters,” said Craig Robinson, who runs the influential Iowa Republican blog. “What is your understanding and foundation on issues like this? Plenty of Iowa Republicans are already grumbling at him. If he were to go another step further and sign into law the gun thing, or the marriage thing, I think it would almost disqualify him as a national candidate.”