Chris Christie: All Coat, No Tail

Chris Christie’s strong enough to get himself re-elected, but not to change perceptions of the GOP at large in New Jersey.

Photo by Kena Betancur/Getty Images

The day after his triumph, Chris Christie returned to the place where it had been sweetest: Union City. Located just across the Hudson River from New York City, Union City is nearly entirely Hispanic, and reliably Democratic. This summer the city’s Democratic mayor, Brian Stack, endorsed Christie, and by the end of the race, the burg became a beacon for reporters writing about Christie’s Hispanic outreach. Christie closed his re-election race with New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez in … Union City

So on Tuesday, flanked by a Greek chorus of cheering schoolkids, Christie held a lengthy press conference about how he won the state and won this city by 6,000 votes. “If you’re doing something in Union City and you want it to be successful, go see Mayor Stack,” he said. 

Underneath the surface, though, there was a realistic follow-up question. Why hadn’t Christie’s popularity been transferred to other candidates? Democrats down the ballot held right onto their votes in Union City. Christie campaigned in person for a few Republican Senate candidates. None of them won. Over at Politicker, pollster Patrick Murray (who says only one state legislative race can be credited to Christie, maybe) provides the data.

Take a look at the vote totals from the state’s five southernmost counties (Atlantic, Cape May, Cumberland, Salem, Gloucester).  According to the unofficial results, Christie won these five counties with 143,799 votes to 76,623 for Buono.  However, the Democratic candidates for state Senate in these counties took 117,316 votes to 97,696 for the GOP slate.

Christie’s “coattails” quest was always hampered by the map. Democrats ran the legislature in 2011; they got to draw a map that made it tough to dislodge them. But they also ran a strong survival campaign, portraying their weaker members as bipartisan wartime allies of the governor, and the Republican challengers as extremists. It worked. Not even the Bergen Record’s endorsement of a Republican challenger in the key 38th District race could flip it.

I hear you, reader: Maybe you don’t care who represents what legislative district in the New York City suburbs. And maybe Republican primary voters won’t care. Wasn’t it just two years ago that Grover Norquist defined the essential quality of a Republican president as a “hand to hold a veto pen”? If Christie runs ahead of the ticket in a country more Republican than New Jersey, they’ll take it.

But his victory yesterday didn’t look like other landslides. Christie has changed viewers’ perception of him, but not of his party. Steve Kornacki has a smart piece comparing the 2013 Christie win to the even-larger 1998 George W. Bush landslide, the gubernatorial race that let Bush tell the world he had appeal to voters who never go Republican. But the Bush race basically closed the book on Texas Democrats. In a Karl Rove-guided upset, the lieutenant governor’s office went (by 2 points) to some guy named Rick Perry. The attorney general’s office went to some guy named John Cornyn—the first Republican to hold that office. Republicans swept every statewide race and gained seats in the legislature.

There has been no comparable transformation in New Jersey. At his presser, Christie was left cheering the defeat of Atlantic City Mayor Lorenzo Langford, who’d clashed with him during hurricane evacuations, but otherwise got right back to describing his strategy for divided government.

“If the Democrats in the legislature want me to increase the earned income tax credit, I’ve sent them bills to do that,” he said. “They need to decrease taxes to do it.”