New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's won reelection Tuesday in a race seen mainly as the kickoff for the next one: the popular Republican is considered a good bet to run for president in 2016. The Associated Press called the race minutes after the polls closed in the Garden State.
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.
Christie's success in New Jersey establishes him as a Republican who can win in a Democratic state, who can appeal to women and Hispanic voters -- groups the GOP has struggled to reach -- and 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, Pre-election opinion surveys showed Christie's Hispanic support is within the margin of error of Buono's, and his support among women topped 50%, though he had stronger support among men.
"I think he's great. He's little hard-edged,'' said Patty Egan of Hazlet, as she voted Tuesday for Christie. "The only problem is, I don't think he'll do as good in the presidential election because he doesn't play well with other people. That matters a lot in national politics.''
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.
"This race has been to at least get to 50 percent plus one, then 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. So, I'll be happy with that."
In January, Christie is slated to become president of the Republican Governors Association. That gives him the opportunity to visit important primary states (Iowa, South Carolina and Nevada, for instance, all have GOP 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 government shutdown.
He protests, however, that he is a conservative. "I'm a conservative," Christie told CNN. "I've governed as a conservative in this state.''
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.
"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.''
Contributing: Larry Higgs, Bob Jordan.