If he’s not running for president, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie may instead face a re-election challenge that has the potential to derail his political career.
Some Democrats are hoping that Cory Booker, the popular mayor of Newark, will rise to the occasion and run against one of the nation’s best known fiscal conservatives. “Democrats are salivating over a potential Booker-Christie matchup,” Democratic strategist Paul Begala told TheDC. “Cory is still little known outside of North Jersey…and yet he is running even with the poster boy of the right.”
Begala points to a survey conducted by Public Policy Polling that shows Christie and Booker tied with 42 percent of the vote, despite the fact that 38 percent of New Jersians are unfamiliar with Booker. According to PPP’s Dean Debnam, Christie “was elected largely because of [former governor] Jon Corzine’s unpopularity and he could have a lot more trouble against someone well liked such as Booker.”
Although the election is still two years away, Booker’s strong record and attractive persona make him a Democratic dream candidate. Under his leadership, Newark’s murder rates have plummeted. Meanwhile, Christie’s massive budget cuts have garnered both praise and fierce criticism in his home state, making him a hero to many on the right while potentially leaving him vulnerable to a strong Democratic challenger.
“Booker is the best hope to win back the Statehouse from a Republican who has far surpassed the public’s expectations,” said one Democratic operative based in New York. “If he runs, Christie is left with a very tough decision: prematurely run for national office, or gamble his political future against one of the most promising and gifted figures in politics today.”
According to the operative, defeating Christie, the scourge of New Jersey’s powerful public employee unions, will be a top priority for Democrats nationwide in 2013. “I doubt the national party will resist this opportunity,” she said.
Could a potential challenge from Booker influence Christie’s decision? Although he has repeatedly insisted that he has no interest in a 2012 White House run, Christie still does well in early presidential polls. His popularity among independents and even some Democrats has at least one poll indicating that he would be the strongest Republican candidate against Obama, but that doesn’t seem to have nudged Christie any closer to running. When asked about the poll showing him winning in a race against Obama, Christie said it was good news for the president because “the only person who’s beating him in the poll will once again declare that I’m not running for President of the United States.”
Even if he decides against a run, there are still ways Christie could ditch Trenton for the national scene. Possible Republican candidate Mitt Romney met with Christie at the New Jersey Governor’s mansion on Monday night, along with “nearly two dozen” advisors and Republican Party leaders, according to the Newark Star-Ledger. Some have speculated that Christie might be interested in the vice presidency next year, but Romney, a Northeastern Republican often criticized as too moderate for the GOP’s conservative primary electorate, might not be likely to choose a running mate who shares so many of his percieved weaknesses.
Christie has been knocked by conservatives for his support of Rep. Mike Castle, a moderate, in Delaware’s GOP senate primary last year; his appointment of a Muslim lawyer to New Jersey’s judiciary; and his openness to the construction of the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque.” Tom Marr, filling in for the host on Mark Levin’s popular afternoon radio show last week, went so far as to call him “a fake, a phony, and a fraud.”
Still, in the midst of what many have called a weak Republican field, Christie’s apparent ability to mount a strong challenge to Obama could be a deciding factor. The modern GOP has a long record of nominating comparatively moderate candidates for president: Bob Dole, George W. Bush, and John McCain all came from the more centrist, compromise-accepting wing of the Party. And even though he rules out a 2012 campaign, Christie always stops short of saying he will never run for president.
“I’m going to need a job … after 2013, you know?” Christie said on Meet the Press last year. “So whether it’s going to be governor of New Jersey or something else, it’s going to be doing something. So maybe it will be doing that. Who knows?”
So where does Christie go from here? Given that no major Republican candidate has formally entered the race, he could always change his mind about a White House run. With Booker waiting in the wings, taking his chances nationally might start to look like an attractive option.