Notwithstanding his region-defying YouTube performances, embodiment of everyman anger in the face of a seemingly disengaged President Barack Obama, and appeal to both establishment Republicans and the Tea Party faithful, Gov. Chris Christie would be up against a decided GOP presidential curse were he to jump into the Republican Primary.
He’s from the Northeast.
“Particularly over the course of the last generation, ever since (1964 GOP nominee Barry) Goldwater and the Goldwater Revolution, Northeast Republicans have been perceived as Rockefeller Republicans – purveyors of a too liberal label, which has been their downfall,” said author and Kean University Prof. Terry Golway. “Certainly, Northeastern Republicans are a dying breed.”
The pox goes back even longer – 88 years to be exact.
To find a Grand Old Party member from the Northeast who served as president, one has to time travel to mild-mannered, un-Christie-like Calvin Coolidge of Vermont (1921-1929), who first got the job only because Warren G. Harding died in office.
Before Coolidge, Teddy Roosevelt provides another example of a Northeast-based leader to serve as president. Like Coolidge, Roosevelt became chief executive only when his predecessor, William McKinley, died in office, the victim of an assassination.
With the exception of Coolidge’s 1924 and Roosevelt’s 1904 re-elections, just one man, New York Gov. Thomas Dewey, was able to land the 1948 Republican nomination – before losing in heartbreakingly close fashion to incumbent President Harry S. Truman.
By the 1960s, so daunting was the Rockefeller Republican tag that when it came time for the popular New York Mayor John Lindsay to run for president in 1972, he changed parties and ran as a Democrat.
He never made it out of the primary in his new party.
Lindsay’s successor, Rudy Giuliani, stayed in the GOP to run for president, remaining not only loyal to his party – but to the party’s history of failure in GOP Primary politics.
A late entrant into the race with a strategy that put everything on Florida, Giuliani suffered a shockingly quick meltdown. In the aftermath of his Sunshine State defeat, the barely propped-up New Yorker took painful solace in a debate stage ‘attaboy from eventual winner U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ).
It all adds up to troubling precedent for Christie – should he run for president: an intractable historical disconnect the national party has with this part of the country – as observable in intensity as Texas Governor Rick Perry’s regional chest-thumping in the direction of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney when Perry first entered the race this summer.
And yet – despite the several similarities he shares with his friend and ally Giuliani, and his mentor, liberal Republican former Gov. Tom Kean – Christie also has politically positioned himself to blunt some of the most negative associations by the national party with Northeast party leaders.
In short, Christie is not Giuliani.
“At a very obvious level, there is a lot of comparison between Giuliani and Christie,” said Golway. “They are both tough former prosecutors who are no-BS type guys. But, by the same token, Chris Christie is much more conservative on cultural and social issues. They’re actually very different. Consider Giuliani’s track record in his marriages. By comparison and from a personal perspective, Chris Christie has had a fairly stable family life.
Moreover, “he has aligned himself with the pro-life cause and is against gay marriage,” Golway added. “Giuliani was pro choice and fairly pro gay rights, and in that sense, Chris Christie’s candidacy is far more acceptable to Republican Primary voters than Rudy Giuliani.”
Insiders delight in Giuliani’s misfired Florida strategy.
But Monmouth University political scientist/pollster Patrick Murray said Giuliani’s Sunshine State downfall may or may not have been his 2008 undoing, as he underscored Golway’s point about ideology.
“Giuliani might have done better or just as poorly with a different strategy,” Murray said. “The point is with a different strategy he still might not have been able to get by GOP core voters.”
Lauded by his party and others for his performance as leader of New York during the 9/11 terrorist atrocities, Giuliani nevertheless could not easily fit the stereotype as a Tea Party standard-bearer.
Both Murray and Golway say the quick-tempered Christie is an establishment figure “who seems to be able to put the Tea Party in line,” according to Golway.
“What’s fascinating about Chris Christie is he is a darling of the Tea Party, who as governor has spoken at a Right to Life rally, who at the same time is the only guy who can put them in their place, as he did in defending his judicial appointment of Muslim Judge Sohail Mohammed,” said Murray. “Moderate Republicans see this. They need a win and they think he can win.”
To that point, off-the-record Christie allies in New Jersey continue to express fear over the extremism of a Perry candidacy, while privately conceding Romney’s too-easy identification with the old, long-beaten Rockefeller Republicans cannot get him through a primary.
Christie’s fiercest local critics don’t disagree – at least regarding the candidacy of the latter.
“I can’t vote for Romneycare,” movement conservative leader and unsuccessful 2009 gubernatorial candidate Steve Lonegan told PolitickerNJ.com, referring to Romney’s statewide version of healthcare reform that Lonegan equates with Obama’s national model.
Political scientist Dr. Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia confirmed that notwithstanding his differences on some key social issues with Giuliani and regardless of the national GOP love for Christie, he would still face regional doubts.
“The Northeast is, on the whole, a liberal region and the modern GOP is a very conservative party that doesn’t tolerate much deviation from its preferred positions,” Sabato said. “Therefore, successful Northeast GOP pols have, by definition, made some moderate promises to win New Jersey or Pennsylvania or elsewhere that won’t sit well with a much more conservative base in the South or the Rocky Mountain states. Christie will have precisely that difficulty. He has moderate positions on a bunch of topics such as gun control and climate change.
“Mitt Romney has had these challenges as a former Northeast governor as well; they may or may not prevent him from winning the nomination,” Sabato added.
Yet even more than substance, it’s Christie’s style that continues to catapult him into his party’s consciousness as the best Republican to transcend northeast nominating history.
“I don’t think anyone could accuse Chris Christie of being a Rockefeller Republican,” said Golway. “He is to the right of Rockefeller on cultural issues and on fiscal issues he is certainly not Nelson Rockefeller, who in New York presided over an expansion of government. Chris Christie is scaling back. Tom Kean would be more of a Rockefeller Republican.
“Chris Christie is not a country club Republican,” Golway added. “He is a tough-talking Italian Catholic guy.”
That persona, described as blue collar by national Republican strategists, removes him from the aristocratic climes of the party feared the country over as Madison Avenue; while enough substance disassociates the governor from the degree of primary problems confronted by fellow tough guy Giuliani.
Even though he lacks the wealthy Manhattan upbringing of Roosevelt, he arguably has a public temperament most similar with the feisty Rough Rider, who also stood out from the other more measured Northeast-based members of his party who sought the presidency.
Still, “I think that the success of Teddy Roosevelt and Coolidge doesn’t have much relevance today because the country was just much different back then — for instance, the only two states that never voted for FDR were Maine and Vermont,” said Sabato. “Kind of shocking to think of those states as GOP strongholds, right?
“The country as a whole changed quite a bit starting with the New Deal realignment and, later, the transformation of the Solid South from Democratic to Republican,” Sabato added. “Obviously, the whole process of campaigning has changed too: Coolidge and TR didn’t have to go on television. Teddy probably would’ve handled it just fine; Coolidge or Woodrow Wilson? Perhaps a different story.”
And even given that advantage of being good when the cameras roll, if Christie were to ever get in a prez race, aided too by his avoidance of pratfalls that ailed other challengers from this part of the country, his victory too – given the history – would be a far different Republican story.