TRENTON, N.J. (CBSNewYork/AP) — New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie will not be on the ballot Tuesday, but he will face the first major test of his national electoral might as voters head to the polls in nearly a dozen competitive governors’ races.
Christie has used his platform as chair of the Republican Governors Association to carefully rebuild his brand after the Bridgegate scandal that followed politically-motivated lane closures on the George Washington Bridge, as he considers a run for president in 2016.
But as the party’s most public face of the midterms, his influence on the candidates’ fates will also be carefully parsed postelection, helping him build an argument for his party’s backing or providing fodder for critics already grumbling about some of the RGA’s spending choices.
“I’m about winning races, not just making friends,” Christie told reporters recently while stumping for a Republican U.S. Senate candidate Jeff Bell in New Jersey.
Christie has already proven a prodigious fundraiser, helping to raise a record of more than $100 million during his tenure as RGA chair. But the outcomes of each race also will matter, especially if he’s able to take credit for wins in territory usually written off by the GOP, observers said.
Democratic candidates in Rhode Island, Massachusetts and New Hampshire have seen their leads shrink or disappear in recent weeks, while races in Connecticut and Maine remain dead heats. Wins in states like those could help Christie make the case that his party could benefit from a more moderate candidate who can play in Democratic states, potentially shifting the electoral map.
“One of the surprising lessons (of this election) is that the Republicans don’t have to abandon ship in New England,” said Grover Norquist, the conservative anti-tax activist. If Republicans are able to make inroads, he said, “all of a sudden the argument that the Republican Party should be looking northeast — might well be a very big asset for a guy from New Jersey.”
Iowa Republican Gov. Terry Branstad, who is running for his sixth term on Tuesday, said Christie would also benefit from picking up states like Colorado and Illinois, which are currently in Democrats’ hands.
“We not only have some important big states to defend, but we have an opportunity to pick up some states that we never thought might be possible,” he said. “So if we happen to be fortunate enough _ and a lot of these are within a margin of error, they’re within one point or another either way _ but if we, instead of losing states in this year, actually gain states, I think that’d be a real credit to Governor Christie and his efforts, and the money that he’s helped raise, and the help he’s given to candidates.”
The RGA, meanwhile, has tried to play down expectations, emphasizing the odds against their candidates. Republicans are defending 22 of the 36 gubernatorial seats that will be up for vote on Tuesday, including nine incumbents in states President Barack Obama won in 2008 and 2012.
Republicans incumbents such as Scott Walker, Rick Snyder and Rick Scott are facing especially tough challengers in Wisconsin, Michigan and Florida, and observers say angry activists, donors and those looking to tear Christie down inevitably will point fingers if there’s a sweep in Democrats’ favor. Walker, for instance, at one point lashed out at the RGA for what he saw as its lack of adequate spending before walking back his comments. The RGA invested $8 million in the race.
Kevin Madden, a senior adviser to Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign, said Christie critics would make a concerted effort “to elevate any of the setbacks he has, no matter what the outcome is.”
Here are five of the key states Christie will be watching as results roll in Tuesday:
FLORIDA: Christie has spent more time in Florida during the final stretch of the midterms than any other state campaigning for Scott, who has faced a ferocious challenge from the state’s former governor, Republican-turned-Democrat Charlie Crist. The RGA has invested $19 million in the contest _ more than any other. Which party controls the key presidential swing state has important ramifications for 2016 _ as anyone who recalls the 2000 Bush-Gore recount debacle understands.
WISCONSIN: Walker is in a fight for his political life. If Walker wins, Christie would avoid any potential suggestions that he didn’t do all he could to help a potential 2016 rival. If he loses, Christie will likely avoid a primary contest against Walker, who could potentially steal some of Christie’s blustery, anti-union thunder.
CONNECTICUT: Christie on Monday visited a handful of Northeastern states, including Connecticut, where Tom Foley is in a tight race against Democratic Gov. Dannel Malloy. Knocking off blue state governors in his backyard would provide a boost to Christie’s argument that Republicans can compete beyond traditional GOP strongholds and put much more of the map into play in 2016. Christie also has an especially contentious personal relationship with Malloy.
A new poll issued Monday gave Malloy a slight lead, with 47 percent of likely voters supporting Malloy and 44 percent backing Foley. Seven percent remain undecided.
ILLINOIS: The RGA has poured $10 million into Republican challenger Bruce Rauner’s campaign against incumbent Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn, plus plenty of visits from Christie. A win in the state, where Democrats have a significant voter registration advantage, would give Christie major bragging rights.
MICHIGAN: Snyder has been fending off a tough challenge from Democrat Mark Schauer in a state that twice voted for Obama. The RGA has spent considerably to boost Snyder, who passed contentious right-to-work legislation in 2012.
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