Christie's Gay Marriage Decision Will Be 2016 Issue

But the New Jersey governor may be able to still win over conservatives.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie speaks at the Hurricane Sandy New Jersey Relief Fund Press Conference on July 8, 2013, in Sayreville, N.J.
By + More

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie became a conservative hero in part because of his willingness to tear apart teachers in town hall settings as he worked to reform state pension plans and help put the Garden State back in the black. The Republican's brash nature and sharp words catapulted him into demi-god status as the GOP found its angry mojo at the end of 2009 going into 2010.

But his willingness to reach across the aisle and work with Democratic legislative leadership also endeared him to voters of both parties, something that makes political sense for a Republican in a deep blue state.

[READ: Chris Christie May Be Too Popular For His Own Good]

After stating his personal opposition to same-sex marriage, Christie vetoed a bill that would have made it legal and launched a lawsuit appealing the recent decision by a trial court judge legalising it. Given his reputation, it shouldn't be shocking that once the writing was on the wall, Christie decided to pull the plug on the state's lawsuit seeking to overturn the ruling.

And while there's been some initial hue and cry from conservatives in early presidential primary states, it's not hard to see how Christie, who wins over rooms with his affable, bulldog nature and bluntness, can explain away his actions without losing all of his conservative credibility on the marriage issue.

 

If fact, the recent government shutdown forced by Republican intransigence over President Barack Obama's health care law has plunged Republicans about as low as they've ever been in approval polls even though the law remains unpopular.

"Although the governor strongly disagrees with the court substituting its judgment for the constitutional process of the elected branches or a vote of the people, the court has now spoken clearly as to their view of the New Jersey Constitution and, therefore, same-sex marriage is the law," said Michael Drewniak, a Christie spokesman in a statement to The Associated Press.

[ALSO: George W. Bush Silent on Same-Sex Marriage After Dad Helps Legalize One]

Christie's move, which resulted in New Jersey becoming the 14th state to allow gay marriage, gains him across-the-aisle support and sets him not so far apart from other potential 2016 Republican candidates when it comes to the not-insignificant - and growing - number of Republicans who support gay marriage.

Sens. Marco Rubio, Fla., and Rand Paul, Ky., potential Christie rivals, have said they personally oppose gay marriage but that it's a "states' rights" issue, in a political kabuki dance that already marks a contrast to previous GOP presidential fields.

Public support for gay marriage has shifted rapidly in recent years and a recent Gallup poll showed more than 50 percent of the public, including about 30 percent of Republicans, said they would vote to make it legal in all 50 states.

It's true that those are not generally the voters taking to the primaries in Iowa and South Carolina. And even more critical to a burgeoning presidential campaign, the conservative lawmakers and party leaders in those states are unlikely to want to lend support to someone perceived as squishy on such a bedrock, conservative issue.

[OPINION: New Jersey's Gay Marriage Debate Is a 2016 Win-Win for Chris Christie]

Though gay marriage was legalized by Iowa courts since 2009 and an October 2012 poll showed 49 percent of Iowans support gay marriage, versus 42 percent who oppose it, a majority of the justices who made it legal have been voted out of office in recent years.

But 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney, who served as Massachusetts governor when courts made same-sex marriage legal in 2004, spent his whole primary period trying to convince primary voters he was "severely conservative" and was still plagued by social conservative Rick Santorum months into the process.

This isn't the first time Christie has rankled his party's right wing. During the 2012 presidential campaign, Christie appeared side by side with Obama to view the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy and praise the federal government response to the natural disaster. Some conservatives think that helped take the wind out of Romney's sails and bolster Obama's chances at the ballot box.