After his landslide re-election victory in New Jersey, Gov. Chris Christie now has a potent campaign message, a fundraising base and a political springboard for a presidential bid in 2016.
Republican Christie can argue, based on his triumph in usually Democratic New Jersey, that he is giving voters what they want: can-do pragmatism blended with conservative values, and leadership with a heart.
Christie, known for his pugnacious approach and blunt style, won 60 percent of the vote, compared with Democratic candidate Barbara Buono's 38 percent, according to CNN's count. Exit polls show that he won a majority of men and, more important, a majority of women, a cohort that has been going Democratic in national elections.
He also took 20 percent of the African-American vote, a much better showing than is normal for Republicans, and about half of Latino voters, another group that Republicans have had trouble with nationally. He won 93 percent of fellow Republicans, two-thirds of independents, and about 30 percent of Democrats. He heavily outraised and outspent his opponent, showing the potential to raise the massive amounts of money needed in a presidential race.
His victory speech in Asbury Park Tuesday night sounded like the start of a presidential campaign. He said he emphasizes, above all, getting things done for his constituents and at the same time adhering to conservative principles. "If we can do this in Trenton, New Jersey, maybe the folks in Washington, D.C. should tune in their TVs right now," he declared. "When we fight, we fight for those things that really matter in people's lives."
He also said, "I know tonight, a dispirited America, angry with their dysfunctional government in Washington, looks to New Jersey to say ... 'Are people really coming together? Are we really working – African-Americans and Hispanics, suburbanites and city dwellers, farmers and teachers? Are we really all working together?'"
Describing his outreach to voters, Christie added: "You don't just show up in the places where you're comfortable. You show up in the places you're uncomfortable."
Christie greatly benefited from his effective handling of Hurricane Sandy in late 2012, when he showed both a determination to help the storm victims and an empathy that impressed many New Jersey voters. He showed that he was "a compassionate and caring person, and a leader," says Ed Gillespie, former chairman of the Republican National Committee.
But Christie alienated some die-hard conservatives when he praised President Obama for the quick federal response to the storm. Those conservatives had already been suspicious of Christie, doubting the depth of his conservatism. This attitude could spell trouble for the governor in key states if he seeks the GOP presidential nomination in 2016.
In some ways, Christie's victory was more of a tribute to his powerful personality than his ideology. He talked at great length during the campaign about his achievements, not about his party affiliation.
Republican strategists in Washington say he is trying to emulate George W. Bush in the run-up to the 2000 presidential race. Bush parlayed a smashing re-election victory as governor of Texas to portray himself as a different kind of conservative who could appeal to more than the Republican base. He went on to win the GOP nomination and then the White House.
Ken Walsh covers the White House and politics for U.S. News. He writes the daily blog "Ken Walsh's Washington" for usnews.com and "The Presidency" column for the U.S. News Weekly. He is the author of the new book "Prisoners of the White House: The Isolation of America's Presidents and the Crisis of Leadership." Ken Walsh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Facebook and Twitter.