The drug issue in recent presidential elections has chiefly involved pot activists pushing for legalization, but New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is hoping to tap a different strain of the drug vote, making an appeal for compassion and treatment as he tries to woo a growing number of families affected by their relatives’ addiction.
Mr. Christie has been talking about addiction for years in New Jersey, but it’s a pitch that could pay off for him in New Hampshire, home of the first-in-the-nation primary in February and a state where a spike in overdoses, opioid abuse and drug-related deaths in recent years has rattled residents and shot the issue to the top of voters’ concerns.
A WMUR Granite State Poll, conducted in October by the University of New Hampshire Survey Center, found that a stunning 25 percent of voters say drug abuse is the most important issue facing the state. It’s a major jump from last year, when 3 percent listed it as their chief concern, and marks the first time in nearly eight years that something other than jobs and the economy has topped the list.
Mr. Christie, who declared the war on drugs a failure in 2011, has tried to seize the opportunity by making it a focus of his campaign, arguing that nonviolent offenders should be “given the tools they need to recover because every life is precious.”
“We need to start treating people in this country, not jailing them,” Mr. Christie recently said.
New Hampshire State Sen. Jeb Bradley, chairman of a new state task force charged with addressing the problem of opiates and heroin, said the drug issue has “roiled the state” and that Mr. Christie’s personal stories and professional experience of tackling the issue as governor and as a former federal prosecutor have helped him make a “compelling case.”
“It is probably the top concern on a statewide issue. People are talking about it all the time — and rightfully so,” said Mr. Bradley, who is uncommitted in the race.
In a sign that Mr. Christie’s message is resonating, former New Hampshire State House Speaker Donna Sytek formally endorsed Mr. Christie before a drug recovery roundtable event featuring the Republican candidate Tuesday in Manchester.
“He has a record of results in New Jersey, which has lowered recidivism and incarceration rates for nonviolent drug offenders,” Ms. Sytek said in a statement. “New Jersey’s success under Governor Christie’s leadership establishing drug courts that mandate treatment instead of incarceration is a model for the rest of the country.”
Presidential candidates often try to home in on issues important to the states where they are competing. Backing farmers and ethanol subsidies are always popular stances in Iowa, for example.
But Mr. Christie has been the most nimble of candidates in seizing on the issue of drug addiction in New Hampshire.
“This isn’t unique to New Hampshire, but I think it has been more pronounced in New Hampshire and perhaps more surprising because this is an upper-middle-class state with high levels of income — and it came out of the blue,” said Andrew E. Smith, director of the UNH Survey Center, which conducted the October poll.
Half of those polled — including 39 percent of Republicans — said the state should be investing more in programs to combat heroin use. Eighty-eight percent of voters overall said heroin abuse is a “very serious” problem.
Manchester Mayor Ted Gatsas, a Republican, said he has urged Mr. Christie and his presidential rivals who have visited — including former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Ohio. Gov. John Kasich and businessman Donald Trump — to make the issue a major priority on the national level.
“It is an epidemic,” he said, adding that 10 people died from drug abuse in Manchester in September. “If I told you that 10 people died of something else, you’d tell me a serial killer was around or a bad disease is happening.”
Prescription drug abuse is often linked to heroin use. Some users have switched to the street drug because it is cheaper and easier to obtain than prescription opioids. Mr. Bradley said opiates and heroin accounted for 350 deaths in New Hampshire last year, and the state is on a similar pace this year.
Mr. Christie is gaining momentum in New Hampshire after capturing the coveted endorsement of the influential Union Leader newspaper this week.
But his breakout moment arguably came last month after a video went viral showing him opening up to a rapt audience at a New Hampshire town hall event about how he lost a friend to drug addiction. The story helped soften his tough-guy persona.
“It certainly it is an issue that allows him to connect with the audience, which then allows him to talk about other issues that are important to him,” Mr. Smith said. “They are almost eating out of your hand after a speech like that.”