New Jersey voters never got to hear Chris Christie's most important speech this year, because it took place behind closed doors at a Westin hotel in Boston, where the governor laid out his not so veiled pitch for the party's 2016 nomination. "I'm in this business to win," he told the crowd of Republican leaders, according to an audio recording smuggled out of the room. "I don't know why you're in it."
It was pure Christie, combat bundled in cliché. All politicians want to win, but only Christie would stand before the men and women who run his party and question their motivations. Ever since he ousted Democratic incumbent Jon Corzine in 2009, he has run the Garden State with combustible passion, blunt talk and the kind of bipartisan dealmaking that no one seems to do anymore. He doesn't claim to be an ideas man or a visionary. There is no master plan, no promised utopia to accompany his pension reforms and boardwalk rebuilds. He's a workhorse with a temper and a tongue, the guy who loves his mother and gets it done. What does it matter that he regularly calls his opponents idiots or jerks? "If people had a choice between prepackaged, blow-dried politicians and people who just say it the way it is, I think they would pick the latter," he said at a debate. "That's why we are having the success we had."
All year long, Christie has presented this character he has created as the savior for the Grand Old Party. His point now is that ideas alone don't win elections. Stories do, coupled with action and storytellers people can believe in. At the Boston meeting in August, he said ideologues had begun to edge out the winners in Ronald Reagan's Big Tent. (He meant you, Tea Party, Ted Cruz, Sarah Palin.) They acted like college professors, just spouting ideas. "College professors are fine, I guess," he joked, before driving it home. "If we don't win, we don't govern. And if we don't govern, all we do is shout into the wind."
Christie then went out and won, and he won big. In a blue state, he got 61% of the vote for governor on Nov. 5. Exit polls had him winning 21% of blacks and 51% of Latinos. As a pro-life man running against a pro-choice woman, he won women by 15 points. He won 32% of Democrats, 86% of conservatives and 31% of liberals. He won so completely that in the final weeks, Democrats jockeyed to appear with him in public, and nearly two dozen Democratic mayors endorsed him. The last time Barack Obama came to New Jersey, Christie won him a stuffed bear at the Jersey Shore and Obama would not be seen in public with Christie's hapless opponent Barbara Buono.
This was exactly what Christie's tight band of top political advisers wanted. About half of them are veterans of Rudy Giuliani's 2008 presidential campaign, and they know the drill for taking a local act national. They will swear up and down that the governor is focused on New Jersey right now, that he has not thought about whether he will run for national office. But they built his re-election campaign as a kickoff for 2016 and made sure that Christie alone would have the election-night spotlight. Popular Newark Mayor Cory Booker was shunted into an earlier special election for the Senate--at a cost of $24 million.