What Christie's Win in N.J. Means for the Future of the G.O.P.

Well, what do I know?

Last Friday, I predicted on this blog that incumbent Democratic Governor Jon Corzine would defeat GOP challenger Chris Christie in my home state of New Jersey--a "wildly reckless prediction," as I put it, but a prediction all the same. I was wrong. With 95 percent of precincts reporting, the fat man has defeated the bald man 49 percent to 45 percent, returning Drumthwacket--that's our endearingly Harry Potter-esque name for the governor's mansion--to Republican hands for the first time since 2001.

How did Christie do it? Given that the final pre-election polls pegged the Republican's lead at a statistically insignificant one percent, Corzine's defeat was surprisingly broad and deep. He lost in swing counties, like Gloucester, that he won handily in 2005; he lost Republican strongholds like Monmouth by even larger margins than the last time around. Independents preferred Christie to Corzine 58 percent to 33 percent, and energized Republicans made up a three percent larger share of the electorate (31 percent) than they did in 2008. Christie trounced Corzine by 8 percent among voters aged 30-44, a group of New Jerseyans that Barack Obama won last year by more than 15 percent. And most importantly, Independent candidate Chris Daggett, who climbed as high as 20 percent in the polls earlier this fall, ended up being something of a non-factor. Heading into Tuesday, Daggett was still clinging to about 10 percent of the vote. But on Election Day approximately half of the voters who'd told pollsters they planned to pull the lever for the Independent wound up in Christie's column instead--which pretty much accounts for the Christie's margin of victory. Even if Corzine had pocketed 75 percent of the remaining Dagget loyalists--an impossibility given that Daggett was clearly siphoning off anti-Corzine voters from Christie--he still would've lost.

So despite my faulty prognostication, 2009's biggest nail-biter wound up being pretty predictable in the end. Ask an eternally cranky electorate in a state with a tanking economy and some of the highest taxes in the country to reelect a sitting governor with an approval rating of 37 percent and they're probably going to refuse--especially in an off-off-year election, when the party out of power has a pronounced enthusiasm advantage. But don't take it from me. Ask Jim Florio, another

The big question now--which I'm sure the cable TV hordes will be pondering endlessly, or at least until the next shiny object catches their eye--is what does it all mean? The RNC is already crowing that Christie's win over an incumbent governor who outspent him two to one in a deep blue state represents a repudiation of Obama's policies and the first flowering of a coming Republican renaissance. They have every right to brag, of course; given all the obstacles--including his own 41 percent approval rating--Christie's win IS impressive. But all the "Republican revival" stuff is premature. As in every other off-off-year election, local issues--corruption and property taxes, in the case of the Garden State--defined the 2009 races. This was true when the Democrats trumpeted their wins in 2001, and it's true now. After all, 57 percent of New Jersey's electorate approved of Obama's performance so far. The fact that only 45 percent of them were willing to vote for the president's anointed candidate proves that voters were thinking about New Jersey, not Washington, D.C., when they arrived at their polling places on Tuesday.

Going forward, the important thing to watch is what the Republican Party chooses to learn from the New Jersey results. Unlike Bob McDonnell, Christie is not an orthodox conservative----and blue New Jersey is not purple Virginia. (For proof, check out the Obama-centric Christie ad at the top of this post.) If the GOP overlooks Christie's essential moderation, which fueled his wins in key swing counties, and decides instead that its motto for 2010 should be "Conservatives only win when they act like hard-core Conservatives," tonight's victories may well end up being Pyrrhic (especially in light of what happened to conservative standard-bearer Doug Hoffman in New York.) At this point, the party's one and only job is to coalesce around a kind of conservatism that is able, as Alex Massie puts it, "to counter some of structural [and demographic] advantages that, right now and for the foreseeable future, will run in the Democratic Party's favor." Looking at the results from New Jersey--a state that probably has more in common with our multicultural, socially liberal future than Virginia--I'm not sure that old-school, firebreathing fundamentalism is the answer.

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