2013 Governors' Races Test for National Republican Party Path Forward

Republicans split on how to return to national prominence could learn from state races.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie speaks to a large gathering in Manasquan, N.J., Thursday, March 21, 2013, during a town hall meeting.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie speaks to a large gathering in Manasquan, N.J., in March during a town hall meeting.

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Conventional wisdom has it that the Republican Party needs to emerge from the ashes of the 2012 election with a new recipe for success – whether or not that means greater party purity or greater willingness to compromise has yet to be determined.

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As Congress copes with major issues such as gun control, immigration and budget battles ahead of the 2014 midterm election, lawmakers are sorting out for themselves which path is best.

But a pair of 2013 gubernatorial contests may end up proving the best case study of all for the GOP as it looks for improved outcomes in races that stretch beyond carefully crafted partisan congressional districts.

In New Jersey, Gov. Chris Christie is running for re-election with a near atmospheric approval rating – 68 percent in a recent poll – thanks to his straight-talking style and universally praised leadership in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. In Virginia, Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli sets a more divisive tone, as the first attorney general to sue the federal government over the Affordable Care Act, also known as 'Obamacare,' he has a Tea Party reputation and is an outspoken social conservative. How they navigate their races and what kind of success they have could prove to be the canary in the coal mine for the national party.

Christie's path to victory appears obvious.

As the Republican governor of a blue state that President Barack Obama won by 18 points, he's spent his first term crafting deals with the Democratically controlled legislature that hold as fast to his fiscally conservative principles as possible. That means he can sell himself as a bipartisan compromiser but also a man of principle, having vetoed measures that would have raised the minimum wage for example.

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"Everything has been bipartisan by the very nature or it wouldn't have happened in New Jersey," says Mike DuHaime, a top GOP consultant working for Christie's re-election. "So that means there has been compromise – he hasn't gotten everything he's wanted, the Democratic legislature hasn't gotten everything they wanted, but that's what people expect from their government. They expect people to work together."

That attitude is what propelled Christie to embrace Obama when he came to survey storm damage leading up to the 2012 election, despite the fact Christie had been a top surrogate for Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney. Many in the Romney camp, and across the party, have remained bitter that Christie so eagerly praised the president. New Jersey Democrats point to the occasion as an explanation for the sometimes bombastic governor's high approval marks, but DuHaime says the governor was popular even before the storm.

"People have fixed opinions on him," he says. "The reason he won last time is that he does very well among Republicans, he did incredibly well among independent voters and then he got a significant chunk of moderate to conservative Democrats as well."

Christie became a conservative favorite because of his confrontational manner – his office often released YouTube videos of the governor talking tough to teachers as he was working to enact education reforms – and willingness to speak bluntly. He was even considered a top potential presidential candidate in 2012 and may well run in 2016. And while few would argue he isn't a 'true conservative,' it's his deal-making nature, and willingness to work with top Democrats in his state rather than demonize them that has led him to the cusp of re-election against a lesser known Democratic opponent.

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"As a Republican governor with a Democratic Legislature, if there's going to be a bill on his desk, it's going to be a compromise; this notion that he's this great compromiser is a little overblown," says John Wisniewski, a New Jersey assemblyman and state Democratic Party chairman. "It's akin to giving the governor credit for breathing."