New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie cruised to re-election Tuesday, giving Republicans a bright spot in an off-year election and demonstrating how the GOP can win in blue states and potentially positioning himself as a counterweight to the tea party in the 2016 Republican presidential primaries.
Networks called the race immediate after the polls closed at 8 p.m. — citing exit polls that showed that he steamrolled his Democratic challenger, state Sen. Barbara Buono.
The renewed lease on the governorship gives Mr. Christie more time to watch over the Hurricane Sandy recovery effort, and to push a legislative agenda that could include in-state tuition for illegal immigrants.
It also gives him a high-profile launching pad to make the case that he should be the party's standard bearer in the 2016 presidential race.
Speaking at an election-night party, Mr. Christie said his administration has done what it promised to do four years ago by turning the state's political culture upside down and getting things done.
"We stand here tonight showing that it is possible to put doing your job first, to put working together first, to fight for what you believe in yet still stand by your principles and get something done for the people that elected you," he said, before suggesting lawmakers in Washington could learn a thing about leadership from the Garden State.
"I know that if we can do this in Trenton, New Jersey, maybe the folks in Washington D.C. should tune in their TV's right now and see how its done," he said to thunderous applause.
With 60 percent of the vote counted, Mr. Christie had captured 60 percent of the vote, compared to 39 percent for Mrs. Buono, who used her concession speech to thank her volunteers for withstanding the "onslaught of betrayal from our own political party."
"I took one for the team. The only problem: I realized too late, their was no team," Mrs. Buono said.
Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus congratulated Mr. Christie on his "impressive re-election victory tonight."
"During his first term, the governor proved that Republican principles get results — even in a state the pundits like to call a 'blue state,'" Mr. Priebus said.
"He brought fiscal responsibility to Trenton, and he brought tax relief to families. He put students before special interests, and in everything he stayed true to his word," Mr. Priebus said.
Heading into Election Day, polls showed that the tough-talking governor would coast to a second term, thanks in large part to the way he handled the response to Hurricane Sandy, which slammed the Atlantic Coast a year ago, killing 38 people in New Jersey and damaging close to 350,000 homes.
Voters applauded the way he teamed up with President Obama in the wake of the storm, and the way in which Mr. Christie put the state before political partisanship, which had come to define Washington and to turn off voters.
While some conservatives outside the state blasted Mr. Christie's embrace of Mr. Obama, voters inside the state lapped it up and his popularity blasted off into the stratosphere — and stayed there.
"It really is all about Sandy," said Patrick Murray, a pollster at Monmouth University. "Before Sandy, there were a number of Democrats thinking about taking on Christie, but after Sandy hit and his job approval jumped by 20 points, all bets were off."
Mr. Murray said the national Democratic Party also took a pass on exhausting much time and energy in the state.
"That is mainly because the one candidate who decided to run, Barbara Buono, couldn't make the case that she could bloody Christie up in advance of 2016," Mr. Murray said.
Ben LaBolt, who served in both of Mr. Obama's successful presidential campaigns, suggested the decision could come back to haunt Democrats, saying via Twitter this week that "time will tell if not spending any money to define Christie now was a mistake."
Preliminary exit polls showed that Mr. Christie did well with constituencies with deep ties to Democrats, winning 56 percent of women, 45 percent of Hispanics and 21 percent of blacks — three groups that Republicans have struggled to woo in the past two presidential cycles.
"In this race Gov. Christie earned significant support among minority voters," Mr. Priebus said. "That's a testament to the success of his results-oriented leadership and an inclusive campaign. During this race, the RNC worked alongside the Christie campaign to engage early and often with Hispanic, African-American and Asian voters."
Political observers and Republican insiders said the margin of victory would send a message that Republicans can broaden their appeal and bolster the brand without tacking to the tea party.
"It also shows that a more moderate candidate who focuses on keeping taxes, spending and regulation low but also working with Democrats to govern is very popular with voters of both parties," said Steven Duprey, a Republican National Committee member from New Hampshire. "Voters want problem solvers not ideologues — they respect a conservative and don't need a candidate to surrender their principles but they don't want candidates/governors wasting time on divisive issues."
Mr. Christie closed out the final week of the campaign with a 46-stop bus tour, which doubled as a preview of the message that he is likely to turn to in a presidential campaign — and featured guest appearances from former New York City Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez.
Before the polls closed, Mr. Christie said on CNN's "The Lead with Jake Tapper" that the "party has to focus on winning again."
"Sometimes I think our party cares more about winning the argument then about winning elections," Mr. Christie said. "If you don't win elections you can't govern, and if you can't govern, you can't change the direction of a state like we have in New Jersey."
"I've governed as a conservative in this state, and I think that's led to some people disagreeing with me in our state, because it's generally a left-of-center, blue state," Mr. Christie said.
It is unclear how Mr. Christie will perform with grass-roots conservatives and tea partyers in the early primary states, and how his blunt style will play outside of New Jersey. But some political pundits say Mr. Christie comes out of the election as an early favorite in the presidential sweepstakes.
"As we sit here and eat our Cheerios tomorrow morning, he is going to be the front-runner for the Republican nomination," said Mike McKenna, a Republican consultant. "He is going to have unlimited cash. He's got the best name recognition of everybody and his campaign operation is not great, but it is no worse than anybody else's, and I suspect he will get some of the best campaign operations because he has the most cash out of the gate."
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