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Romney’s VP Choice Limits Christie’s Options, Shapes Governor’s Race

Mark J. Magyar | August 13, 2012

Focus of New Jersey politicians shifts immediately to Christie’s 2013 reelection campaign.

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s decision to choose Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan as his running mate limits Christie’s options for a future presidential run and immediately shifts the focus in New Jersey to Christie’s 2013 gubernatorial reelection campaign.

Privately, Republican Party leaders in New Jersey were relieved by Ryan’s selection, knowing that Christie’s consistently high poll ratings make him a solid favorite for reelection, while any other GOP candidate would automatically start out as a 10-point underdog. With Democrats firmly in control of both houses of the Legislature, Democratic recapture of the governorship would make the GOP in New Jersey virtually irrelevant.

Meanwhile, Democrats weighing a race for the governorship next year have to plan for the likelihood that they will be going head to head with Christie. And while Christie has not yet announced his plans for 2013, the New York Post reported that he refused to promise the Romney campaign that he would resign the governorship in order to run for vice president -- which undercuts the theory that Christie has been eyeing a move to Fox as a commentator to boost a potential 2016 race if Romney loses.

Some Democrats are still hoping that Christie will become U.S. Attorney General if Romney wins. But Christie has repeatedly said he’s “nobody’s No. 2,” and U.S. Attorney General isn’t much of a platform for an ambitious politician aiming to run for president; Robert Kennedy is the only former attorney general to make a high-profile run for president in modern history, and he had the Kennedy name and was serving as U.S. senator from New York when he ran. Besides, Christie has said repeatedly that he loves being New Jersey governor and that his job is not yet finished.

Christie is still in the running to deliver the keynote address at the Republican National Convention -- the same prime-time showcase that Barack Obama seized upon in 2004 to propel him to the Democratic presidential nomination and to the White House four years later. But while he will continue to campaign nationwide for the Romney-Ryan ticket, he will no longer command the headlines or the talk shows the way he did until after the November election is decided -- and then only if Romney loses.

The Young Christie

Christie, at 49, is still young, and he admitted last month he is thinking about whether to run for president as early as 2016 -- a startling statement considering that a 2016 race would only be a possibility if Romney loses. However, a Romney victory would sharply limit Christie’s future options. If Romney wins in November, he would be seeking reelection in 2016, and if he has a successful two terms, his vice president, Paul Ryan, would be young enough at 50 to expect to run in 2020 -- as George H.W. Bush did in 1988 and Al Gore did in 2000. Thus, a successful Romney presidency could preclude a Christie presidential candidacy for a dozen years -- a lifetime in presidential politics.

Romney’s selection of Ryan is important not only because it represents his embrace of the conservative wing of the Republican Party, but also because it puts Ryan’s plan to restructure the federal budget and reduce the deficit at the center of his campaign and presumably his administration. In fact, Romney has essentially decided to run on the fiscal policies set out by Ryan and the Republican majority in the U.S. House of Representatives -- a wing of the party that is committed not to raise taxes for any reason, including reducing the budget.

Christie issued a brief two-sentence statement praising the Ryan pick: "With Paul Ryan on the ticket, this is a team that understands the economic stagnation our country has been facing the last four years and the urgency with which we need to change course. The Romney-Ryan team is uniquely positioned to make the tough choices necessary to confront our fiscal challenges and get results."

However, Christie also said in a speech to the Brookings Institution last month that one of Obama’s biggest leadership failures was his refusal to immediately embrace and fight for the bipartisan deficit reduction plan put forth by the commission headed by former U.S. Sen. Alan Simpson (R-WY) and Democratic budget expert Chester Bowles -- one that included not only cuts in Medicare, Social Security, and other entitlement programs, but also a series of tax increases to help pay down the deficit.

Christie is clearly the most conservative governor in modern New Jersey history, and his loud YouTube confrontations and his tell-it-like-it-is Jersey style have made him a darling of grass roots Republicans and national commentators.

But the idea that Simpson-Bowles deserved consideration as a bipartisan compromise -- and the need for compromise, which has been one of Christie’s favorite themes in his speeches to public policy think tanks -- places Christie ideologically as a moderate in the national Republican Party.

Some right-wing blogs have been grousing about Christie’s nomination to a New Jersey Superior court judgeship of a Muslim whose family ties to radical Islamic groups they questioned. And it’s unclear how Christie’s nomination of an openly gay African-American Republican to the New Jersey Supreme Court would have played in the faith-based communities of evangelicals and Catholics who consider homosexuality a sin.

While Christie’s name has been prominent in discussions of potential vice presidential nominees since his decision last fall to endorse Romney and not to run for president himself, he was always considered to be a bold choice and something of a long shot for the cautious Romney.

A Loose Cannon

The sharp retorts and flares of temper that made Christie a YouTube star also confirmed his reputation as a something of a loose cannon, a politician who could fly off the handle at any time -- an image he inadvertently confirmed during a confrontation with a heckler on the Seaside Heights boardwalk that came at the height of the vice presidential vetting process. “Going rogue” is no longer in fashion four years after Sarah Palin’s antics undermined John McCain’s candidacy.

The three candidates that Romney considered as finalists were all considered safe choices -- U.S. Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, and Ryan.

Christie’s presence on the ticket was not expected to pull New Jersey, the fifth most Democratic state in the nation, out of the Obama column. However, the selection of Portman would have been a plus in the key swing state of Ohio, and Ryan could help Romney in Wisconsin, which is considered a second-tier swing state and one in which conservative Gov. Scott Walker has been carrying on an even more rancorous battle with public employee unions than Christie has in New Jersey.

While Christie’s record as governor of New Jersey is his chief claim to fame, there are disadvantages to running for president or vice president as a sitting governor. The 1988 Democratic presidential nominee, Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, found his “Massachusetts Miracle” economic surge questioned repeatedly during the campaign. Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton was forced to defend himself in 1992 against questions about what Arkansas, one of the most poorly performing states in the nation, had to teach the rest of the country, and Texas Gov. George W. Bush was on the defensive in 2000 over the fact that the Texas governor's office is the weakest in the nation.

Christie’s presence on the ticket, whether he resigned to run or not, would bring constant questions about how he could claim a “New Jersey Comeback” when the state ranked 47th in the nation in economic growth in both 2010 and 2011. And there would be no shortage of potential Democratic candidates for governor willing to make that point repeatedly.

State Sen. Barbara Buono (D-Middlesex) charged this weekend that Romney’s people “saw through” Christie’s “record of failure to create jobs, grow the economy, control property taxes, and make the cost of a college degree within reach of families.” Assemblyman John Wisnewski (D-Middlesex), the state’s Democratic Party chairman, has repeatedly assailed Christie on economic issues, property taxes, and transportation policy. Potential candidates like Newark Mayor Cory Booker, who made a campaign trip for Obama to Michigan this weekend, Sen. Richard Codey (D-Essex), Assembly Majority Leader Lou Greenwald (D-Camden), and Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) have all been sharply critical of Christie’s economic and property tax record at various times.

Now that Christie is not going to be on the Romney ticket, these prospective candidates will be making the same points, not on behalf of the Obama campaign, but as the opening salvos of what could very well be the most expensive gubernatorial campaign in New Jersey history, including spending by outside support groups.

High Stakes

If Christie does run for reelection, as is likely, the stakes will be higher than the typical New Jersey gubernatorial election, particularly if Romney loses.

Assuming that Christie meets rhetorical expectations with a prime-time convention speech, the New Jersey governor will be at the top of the list of potential Republican presidential candidates for 2016. But his star would be tarnished, perhaps fatally, if he loses his 2013 reelection campaign for governor (although former Rep. Rick Santorum survived his loss in a Pennsylvania U.S. Senate race to win several primaries against Romney).

New Jersey and Virginia have the only gubernatorial races in the off-year 2013 elections, but Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, who was also on Romney’s potential vice presidential list, cannot run for reelection because of his state’s one-term rule. So Christie’s race will clearly be the centerpiece of the 2013 election season.

Christie’s campaigning and fund-raising on behalf of Republican candidates across the country will be repaid in out-of-state campaign contributions to Christie and to his allies, and it would not be surprising to see major national Republican fund-raisers pour money into political action committees supporting Christie’s reelection and policies.

Similarly, national Democratic funders and fund-raisers will see 2013 as an opportunity to take out one of the top Republican candidates three years before the next presidential election, and national labor unions, in particular, will have a strong vested interest in defeating Christie earlier rather than later.

With the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision removing the limits on campaign spending by outside groups, the battle over Christie’s record -- which is what all gubernatorial reelection campaigns really are -- could top all previous spending totals.

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