Martha T. Moore, USA TODAY
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie easily won re-election Tuesday in a race seen mainly as the kickoff for the next contest: the popular Republican is considered a good bet to run for president in 2016.
Christie dominated in money, airtime and polls against his opponent, state Democratic Sen. Barbara Buono, but his real opponent may well be any other Republican considering 2016.
"It is possible to put doing your job first, to put working together first, to fight for what you believe in and stick to your principles but still get something done for the people who elected you,'' Christie said Tuesday night in a victory speech with national overtones. "Tonight a dispirited America, angry with their dysfunctional government in Washington, looks to New Jersey to say ... are people really coming together?''
Christie's success in New Jersey establishes him as a Republican who can win in a Democratic state, who can win women and Hispanic voters - groups the GOP has struggled to reach - yet whose social conservative credentials are still fairly intact.
"This is all about that,'' says Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Poll. "He wants to be able to say he's the Republican who can win among Latinos.''
In case national Republicans might miss the point, Christie ended his campaign Monday night with a rally in heavily Hispanic Union City, accompanied by New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez. Exit polls -- surveys of voters taken as they left polling places -- showed that Christie increased his support among women and among black and Hispanic voters by double digits compared with his election in 2009.
That gives Christie "bragging rights that he can take into 2016 and clear the field of all the other moderates,'' Murray says.
Christie won't say he plans to run for president in 2016 - which might mean stepping down early as governor - but he won't rule it out. He did admit he wanted to be the first Republican to win 50% of the vote statewide since George H. W. Bush did so in 1988. "Anything above that gravy," he said Tuesday in an interview on CNN. "That's a historical achievement. In 25 years, no one's done that in New Jersey." In fact, Christie far exceeded the mark: with almost all the votes counted he had more than 60% of the vote.
In January, Christie is to become president of the Republican Governors Association. That will give him the opportunity to visit important primary states (Iowa, South Carolina and Nevada, for instance, all have Republican governors) and get to know the party's big money raisers. The job has been helpful before to presidential candidates: Mitt Romney was president of the RGA in 2006 and Rick Perry in 2011.
Christie has worked closely with Democrats in the state Legislature and embraced President Obama and federal disaster aid after Superstorm Sandy ravaged the Jersey Shore last year. He has been critical of Congressional Republicans, both over Sandy aid and the federal government shutdown.
He protests against being labeled a moderate Republican. "I've governed as a conservative in this state,'' Christie told CNN Tuesday.
In 2009, Christie, then a federal prosecutor ousted incumbent Democrat Jon Corzine thanks to voter anger over the state's recession-ridden economy. In his first term, he capped property taxes but cut rebates so that many homeowners ended up paying more. He fought with public unions to end the cost-of-living adjustment for pensions and required members to pay some of the cost of benefits. He cut the state budget, including funds for education and women's health care. He vetoed same-sex marriage legislation - letting the issue be decided through a court case instead - and three gun control bills.
Christie's second term may not be as productive. Within the borders of the state, he will be a lame duck. "These Democrats that he's worked with are now going to be trying to position themselves as different from him,'' says Ben Dworkin of the Rebovich Institute of Politics at Rider University. "They're going to be looking for points of contrast because they're going to be positioning themselves to win a Democratic primary.''
Republicans, in turn, will be less inclined to vote in lockstep with Christie, Murray says. "We're all expecting a very narrow and limited policy agenda from the governor next year. He probably won't put those loyalties to the test.''
If Christie does run for president, one of his biggest challenges might be winning his home state. Last month's election of Cory Booker to the Senate was in line with the state's solid Democratic voting record for the Senate and Presidency - the last Republican to win its electoral votes was Bush in 1988.
Exit polls on Tuesday, with the same voters who handed Christie his epic win, showed that in a matchup with Democrat Hillary Clinton, Christie would lose New Jersey 48%-44%
"The issues that he's been able to skirt around - abortion, same sex marriage gun control -- take on new importance when you run for senate or president,'' Murray says. "New Jersey voters really do make this distinction. When they vote for national office, then they take social issues into account.''