New Jersey Governor Chris Christie did not attend the first annual Virginia Tea Party Convention in October, hitherto the largest gathering of the movement’s activist core. He did, however, win its presidential straw poll—edging out Sarah Palin, Mitt Romney and other potential 2012 Republican candidates—despite repeated denials of any interest in seeking higher office. The victory was another example of Christie’s strangely magnetic appeal, which increasingly seems to transcend region, political faction and level of sophistication.
From National Review, which ran an August cover story designating him the "Scourge of Trenton," to conservative bloggers electrified by his boisterous YouTube clips, just about every relevant Republican constituency has found something to be taken with in Chris Christie. Policy analysts in Washington appear just as enthralled by his critique of public pensions as are the familiar talk-radio personalities. "Ladies and gentlemen, is it wrong to love another man?" Rush Limbaugh asked one afternoon. "Because I love Chris Christie."
In a feat of strategic jujitsu, Christie has managed to tread a tenuous ideological line between Beltway Republicans and the Tea Party, endorsing Mike Castle over Christine O’Donnell in the Delaware Republican senatorial primary. The calculation implied that although he clearly welcomes its support, Christie is not tethered to the Tea Party’s every whim; meanwhile, the Republican National Committee was happy to shuttle him around the country on behalf of various candidates this election cycle. Even among social conservatives, to whom Christie does not often pander, he has amassed impressive credentials: Brian Brown, president of the National Organization for Marriage, lauded "the victory of a pro-life, pro-marriage GOP governor in New Jersey" last year after Christie vowed to veto a same-sex marriage bill. This ubiquitous adoration suggests that should rumored presidential aspirations materialize, he may be able to unite the party’s balkanized base.
But in the current political climate, fiscal austerity is paramount in the hierarchy of conservative priorities. Emboldened by the anti-tax, anti-spending fervor that propelled Republicans to victory this year, Christie has gained a national profile by insisting that in order to close a $2.2 billion budget deficit, New Jersey must sacrifice many of its most valued social programs—earning him the moniker "Governor Wrecking Ball." In the process, his agenda has become a model for what the incoming class of GOP legislators might pursue on state and federal levels. "He’s in a battle that a lot of conservatives think needs to be fought," says Republican strategist Vin Weber, who characterizes the governor’s campaign against New Jersey public employees as a "proxy war" that could set the stage for a confrontation over entitlement reform in Congress.
Under Christie’s direction, New Jersey has become the country’s most visible laboratory for sweeping austerity measures as a response to pervasive budget shortfalls. Last spring, in what felt like an overnight blitz, he cut hundreds of millions in aid to public schools and municipalities—blindsiding the weak-kneed Democratic legislature into submission. Although dismantling social services has long been a feature of the Republican Party platform, that it could be so fully realized in a traditionally liberal stronghold—where public employees and labor unions are thought to wield much influence—shifts the boundaries of possibility for what conservatives can accomplish nationwide.