In a decision with direct implications for the 2016 Republican presidential race, Gov. Chris Christie ordered his attorney general Monday not to fight a court decision legalizing gay marriage, making New Jersey the nation’s 14th state to recognize same-sex unions.
The capitulation on the hot-button social issue is an about-face for Mr. Christie and may cement his reputation as a pragmatist who fights to win — but shrewdly folds when he sees he has a losing hand, said some political observers. It also may boost the governor’s vote total in his re-election race next month, further burnishing his status as a rare Republican politician who can thrive in a blue state.
But that same pragmatism may hurt his standing with the GOP political base as Mr. Christie faces a field of more conservative rivals in the 2016 presidential primaries. Social conservatives Monday were condemning Mr. Christie’s decision to call off the fight, allowing the court to essentially overturn the state law against gay marriage.
“Ahead of us is a constitutional crisis,” said Len Deo, president of the New Jersey Family Policy Council.
The New Jersey Supreme Court “allowed a single judge to decide for the entire state what marriage is, treading on both the governor and the legislature in doing so,” said Mr. Deo. There are no provisions for religious exemptions, “meaning we will soon see people threatened with intolerable choices between their consciences and their authorization to minister to the needy or conduct business with the public,” he said.
The state allows same-sex civil unions, but Mr. Christie himself vetoed a gay-marriage bill in February 2012 while calling on the Legislature to let state voters weigh in on the issue through a referendum.
Mr. Christie, heavily favored to win a second term Nov. 5 against his Democratic challenger, state Sen. Barbara Buono, may have expanded his appeal to some blocs in New Jersey with the gay-marriage decision, political observers said. It follows a surprise move by the governor in a debate with Ms. Buono on Wednesday opening the door to offering immigrants living in the country illegally to pay in-state tuition rates at the state’s colleges.
Seeking big win
“I think the governor wants to win with a very big margin,” said Ben Dworkin, political science professor at Rider University and director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics.
He said the immigration comments marked a “180-degree turn” from the governor’s previous stance.
The tuition decision may play well in New Jersey, but may “not be the best thing for a Republican running for president,” Mr. Dworkin said.
However, the marriage decision “can still help him” in a presidential run: He can claim that he opposed it until blocked by the courts — and get credit from some gay-marriage supporters because he dropped the appeal, he added.
“It’s a very neat way of threading the needle” on the gay-marriage issue, he said, adding that “in a crowded Republican primary,” Mr. Christie is likely to offer himself as a winner at the polls and an alternative “to the ‘no-compromise’ element of the Republican Party.”
Mr. Christie’s decision is unlikely to win active support within the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) lobby.
“I don’t think we’re about to see the LGBT community organize to raise funds and advance his political ambitions because I think he’s going to continue to say that he doesn’t believe in gay marriage,” said Ruth Mandel, director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey.