You could call him the storm after the storm. First there was Hurricane Sandy, and then, in the far reaches of the Republican Party, there was Hurricane Christie. The former was a devastating act of nature, the latter a desperate act of conservative frustration that came when the New Jersey governor embraced Barack Obama in the final days of the 2012 campaign. To hear the right wing tell it, the PDA between the Republican Chris Christie and the Democratic President should have been as lethal as a Michael Corleone kiss. Romney's campaign sulked. Talk-radio Republicans demanded blood. Tea Party leaders branded Christie a traitor.
Christie, however, didn't give a damn. Throughout the intraparty fight, the Jersey boy tore a page out of his hero Bruce Springsteen's songbook and defiantly struck a "No retreat, baby, no surrender" pose against withering right-wing rage. And now the Nov. 5 election results suggest that brazen, Christie-style bipartisanship might actually work.
Christie is the first New Jersey Republican in a quarter-century to win a majority of votes statewide. And on the same night a Virginia Republican in the governor's race was routed among women, African Americans and Hispanics, Christie improved on his 2009 showing among minorities while walking away with the women's vote. For a pro-life conservative running in a deep blue state, it was a performance every bit as dominant as the Boss ripping through a live version of "Rosalita." And like Springsteen himself, Christie made it all look easy.
The question now is whether his brassy act will play as well in Nashua and Sioux City as it does in Nutley and Asbury Park. The answer rests on what direction a divided Republican Party takes over the next few years.
It's the latest battle in a long war between GOP purists and pragmatists. Next year marks the 50th anniversary of the nomination of Barry Goldwater and the shouting down of Nelson Rockefeller at the Cow Palace in San Francisco. For many conservatives, the Goldwater moment--itself a reaction to the perceived moderation of the Eisenhower years--is a kind of nativity narrative for what's best about the modern GOP. The story goes like this: conservatives disenchanted with Ike nominated Goldwater, whose defeat made Reagan's ultimate victory possible.
The problem with that tale, though, is that it fails to credit the great historical fact of the matter: Eisenhower and Reagan had more in common with Christie than with Ted Cruz. Ike and Reagan knew how to win and how to govern, and they bent history to their will by appealing not just to a narrow slice of America but to the nation--even the world--as a whole.
This is a sadly underappreciated fact within the current GOP. Yes, the fervor of Tea Party activists in 2009 fueled the rise of candidates who rocked the Washington establishment and led the GOP to its greatest legislative victories in half a century. It also led to the elevation of extreme candidates who cost Republicans control of the U.S. Senate and damaged the party's brand nationwide.