Mitt Romney’s infamous “47%” remarks were a despairing message to the Republican Party: only a bare majority of Americans are interested in anything other than a government handout.
Republicans can forget about landslides. Their best hope is to line up nearly all of the non-taker voters to win by a slim majority.
As Gov. Chris Christie (R) prepares to romp to a landslide re-election in New Jersey on Tuesday, he has a message for Republicans everywhere: There’s no need to limit yourself to 53% if you stop despairing and follow my lead.
On Sunday evening, here’s what Christie told Morris County voters, at a rally held by the New Jersey Outdoor Alliance:
We need to show the Republican party in America that we can win again. And guess where they’re going to be watching on Tuesday night to see if we win: right here in New Jersey.
Christie was too polite to say this, but Republicans will actually be watching two states on Tuesday: New Jersey, where Christie will win a landslide, and Virginia, where Republican nominee Ken Cuccinelli will lose badly.
Unlike Christie, Cuccinelli is a favourite of conservatives who love ideological purity and hate compromise. You could hardly come up with a better test case for Christie’s compromise-or-die message.
But despair is one of the few things that unites today’s fractured GOP. Republicans much more conservative than Romney share his basic diagnosis from the 47% speech. It’s an open question whether the juxtaposition of Christie’s landslide and Cuccinelli’s burial will be enough to convince Republicans that broad popularity is possible and worth compromising for.
Christie has been making that case explicitly, telling voters they need to stop expecting so much purity and look for politicians who will make compromises to move the country forward. Speaking to supporters Saturday at Toms River High School South in Ocean County, a Republican stronghold on the Jersey Shore, Christie railed against ideological purity tests:
Let me tell you, if you’re looking for the candidate that you agree with 100% of the time, then I want you to do something for me tonight: Go home and look in the mirror, because that’s the only person you agree with 100% of the time. But sometimes we make political candidates feel like that’s what you want. Like you want us to agree with you 100% of the time or you won’t vote for us. You know what happens then? If you make politicians believe that, you know what they’ll do, they’ll just lie to you. They’ll just look you in the eye and they’ll say ‘hm, I wonder what she wants to hear.’…
That’s why we have the political system we have in Washington now, because we have people who have become convinced that they have to be 100 percenters.
Christie was explicit that his criticism applies to both parties:
I’d love to come to Republican Ocean County and say it’s all the Democrats… What [Washington politicians] don’t get is that people don’t care anymore. People don’t care what they’re bickering about.
He made a similar indictment on Sunday:
We watch this craziness in Washington D.C., where these people don’t do anything anymore except yell and scream at each other, they don’t work with each other, they don’t talk to each other. You know, in New Jersey we just haven’t let that happen.
Of course, yelling and screaming are key parts of Christie’s shtick. “You didn’t hire me to be the arguer-in-chief, although sometimes I like to do that,” he said Sunday. But his point is that the yelling and the screaming are part of a path toward compromise and legislative accomplishment, not (as is typically the case with Republicans in Washington) a substitute for them.
It remains to be seen whether Christie can sell compromise to national conservatives. At least in New Jersey, he’s kept conservatives happy, routinely earning approval ratings well over 90% from Republicans.
While Christie’s political coalition is broad (so broad it includes the Star-Ledger Editorial Board, which thinks he’s “overrated” and “hostile to low-income families”) every person I spoke with at the Toms River rally gave their party affiliation as Republican. These are the sort of activists Christie has to keep happy at the same time he appeals to moderates.
And he has one advantage with conservative activists over national Republican politicians like Cruz and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.): actual governing accomplishments, like a cap on property taxes, cost-saving reforms to public employee pensions, and the sunset of an income tax increase imposed by his predecessor.
Alex Pavliv, a Republican who serves as Vice President of the Toms River School Board, told me Christie “Was the first to take on the teachers’ unions, and it was long overdue.”
Toms River’s Republican Mayor, Thomas Kelaher, praised the availability and responsiveness of the Governor’s staff during the ongoing recovery from Hurricane Sandy.
Diane Lent-Simon, the Secretary of Ocean County Right-To-Life, approached me to say how much her organisation appreciates Christie’s support of pro-life causes. She noted he was the first governor to speak at their annual Jan. 22 Trenton protest on the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision. She also cited his opposition to same-sex marriage and assisted suicide.
But what about Christie’s recent decision not to pursue an appeal of a trial court decision legalizing same-sex marriage, I asked. “We were disappointed in him,” she said. She has other complaints too: She wishes he’d be “kinder and gentler in his speech.”
But she was there at the rally because she’s “90% satisfied” with his policy stances on social issues. And personally, she said, she’s very happy with the way he’s handled recovery from Hurricane Sandy.
But mostly, the attendees focused on Christie’s strong personal appeal. Christie (not unreasonably) sees his strong personal connection with voters as an asset that allows him to say “no” when other candidates might need to pander, at later electoral cost.
This was on display among the Toms River crowd. Brian Keating, an entrepreneur from Manchester Township, didn’t cite specific policies but said he appreciated the governor’s support for business. Plus, “I just think he’s hilarious,” and more positive and uplifting than his opponent.
Maggie Cleary, chairwoman of the D.C. Federation of College Republicans, was there with a group of about 10 college students from Washington, spending the weekend campaigning for Christie. Why, I asked, were they all the way in New Jersey when there’s a more competitive race right across the river in Virginia?
“People are really inspired by Christie. He’s someone who really appeals to young voters.” Plus, she had canvassed for Cuccinelli in Fairfax City, a suburb of Washington, two weeks ago and gotten a “poor reception.”
Attendees repeatedly led with effusive, personal praise for Christie. I asked why Gloria Walzer of Manchester why she was at the rally and her answer was simple: “I love Governor Christie.”
Why was Naresh Mukhi of Toms River there? “To support the wonderful Governor Christie.” His friend Parth Bhatt, also of Toms River, added “Present governor, future president.” Dennis DeAngelo urged me to write down “Christie-Rubio 2016.”
By contrast, at a Democratic “unity rally” on Sunday in Paterson, every attendee I approached explained their attendance as owing first to their support for the Democratic party generally, Democratic legislative candidates, or Richard Berdnik (D), Sheriff of Passaic County.
Nobody told me they loved Christie’s opponent, State Sen. Barbara Buono (D), or thought she should run for president.
Perhaps most importantly, Republicans in Toms River repeatedly praised Christie’s ability to work with Democrats. They were not distressed about an excess of bipartisanship. Victoria Balsirow, an Asian-American immigrant with a thick Russian accent now living near Six Flags Great Adventure, put it best:
My husband is a Democrat, I am a Republican. But we live happily together. This country can do the same.
Victoria and her husband are both voting for Christie. Christie’s pitch to national Republicans is that he can hold that coalition together and rocket way past 47% of the vote. The only question is whether Republicans care enough about winning to take him up on it.
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