Christie’s Hispanic outreach a national model?
In cruising to a 22-point reelection victory over largely token Democratic opposition last month, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie accomplished something few statewide and no national Republican candidates can brag about: he won a majority of Hispanic voters. Christie took 51% of Hispanics according to exit polls, an improvement of 19 points over his 2009 performance. Christie’s overall popularity in the wake of Hurricane Sandy’s devastation helped him improve among all segments of the electorate in taking 60% of the vote. But his increase with Hispanic voters was larger than any other, leading national Republicans to look at Christie as potentially the most electable Republican among 2016 presidential contenders.
President George W. Bush took 35 and 40% of Hispanics in his 2000 and 2004 elections, but since then Republicans have been frustrated by their performance with the group. Senator John McCain was only able to attract 31% support from Hispanics in 2008, lower than Bush’s 2000 total. Mitt Romney fared even worse in 2012, claiming just 27% of Hispanics. With Latinos’ share of the national electorate growing, and Democrats pushing hard to make them as reliable a constituency for their candidates as African-Americans, establishment Republicans have become possessed of the notion that in order to win nationally, they must do better with Hispanics.
If Christie’s success provides a blueprint for national Republicans in wooing Hispanic voters, it does not necessarily present any quick fixes. Christie used a mix of old-fashioned retail politics and coalition building, along with championing issues that appealed to Hispanics, to build his Latino majority. Key to this strategy, Christie began reaching out to Hispanics long before the election season.
Christie’s determination to build bridges to New Jersey’s Latino community is best reflected in the endorsement of the Latino Leadership Alliance of New Jersey (LLANJ), a group of over 400 Hispanic leaders dedicated to increasing the political, social, and economic clout of New Jersey’s Hispanic communities. The group endorsed the incumbent Jon Corzine in 2009, but this year it gave it’s endorsement to Christie a full nine months before Election Day. In his statement announcing the endorsement, alliance president Martin Perez cited Christie’s outreach to the group going back to before his election as governor.
“We met Chris Christie when he became New Jersey’s US Attorney [in 2002]. His accessibility struck us, and enabled our friendship to develop. We found him to be a good listener, and he showed a genuine interest in getting to know us and our concerns. We also learned that disagreement was forthright but respectful,” Perez wrote. “These qualities were the building blocks for the friendship that evolved, and also for the transformational leader he has become for all of New Jersey. Over the last three years Governor Christie has listened to our concerns, worked closely with us and given us a seat at the table.”
Christie stressed this commitment to building relationships in his election night victory speech. Addressing national Republicans, Christie said, “When you lead, you need to be there. You need to show up, you need to listen and then you need to act. And you don’t just show up six months before an election, you show up four years before one. And you just don’t take no for an answer the first time no has happened. You keep going back and trying more.”
Matt Rooney, a New Jersey attorney and founder of the conservative Save Jersey blog, told human events Christie has practiced what he preached. “Governor Christie has spent a lot of time maintaining high-visibility in municipalities where Hispanic populations are surging. He hosted a town hall meeting in heavily Democratic Paterson in March 2013. Paterson is 57.63% Hispanic/Latino and home to a diverse array of Hispanic nationalities. Jon Corzine earned 85.7% of the vote there in 2009 when he lost to Christie. The Democrat candidate fared 8 or 9 points worse there in 2013 after Governor Christie scored the endorsement of the Democrat council president.”
Still, seven years of showing up and building relationships did not earn Christie the LLANJ endorsement in 2009, or a majority of Hispanic votes. Politics is about issues and it took Christie’s support for issues important to the Latino community to get its votes. Perez cited three issues in particular in his endorsement: education, immigration, and health care.
Christie has been a strong advocate for school choice programs and charter schools as well as a fierce opponent of entrenched union interests that have long fought for the status quo. Perez called Christie’s support for education reform “especially important to New Jersey’s Latino families.” Perez also praised Christie’s decision to expand Medicaid under Obamacare, opening up the program to an additional 100,000 New Jersey residents. Christie twice vetoed bills to set up a state exchange, and said that the Affordable Care Act “is wrong for New Jersey and for America.” But in accepting federal funding for Medicaid expansion, Christie said he was “putting people first.” It is that kind of rhetoric that the LLANJ said “set[s] aside rigid partisan political boundaries to address the needs of the people.”
On immigration issues, Christie’s approach has been a bit less direct. He steadfastly refused to weigh in on the specifics of the immigration debate in Washington while expressing support for a bipartisan “comprehensive” approach to reform. On the so-called DREAM Act, Christie changed his position in 2013 from opposing to supporting in-state tuition at New Jersey universities for the children of illegal immigrants. Christie says his prior opposition was rooted in the state’s fiscal woes and that the state’s coffers have improved enough now for a move in this direction. A self-serving and calculated shift in position, for sure, but Christie has never been shy about his desire to win elections. “For our ideas to matter, we have to win,” he told an RNC gathering in Boston last August. “If we don’t win, we don’t govern.”
It remains an open question whether Christie’s approach with Latinos can play on the national stage. He will certainly have much stronger Democratic competition for their votes in a future presidential contest. Rooney, for one, thinks Christie would fare better than McCain or Romney. “It’s certainly possible. As Ronald Reagan famously put it, ‘Latinos are Republicans; they just don’t know it yet.’ But that takes work. Hispanic voters won’t ever know it unless we engage them and provide an appealing alternative to the status quo.” If he runs – and if he survives the primary – Christie may have the formula and the determination necessary to win with Hispanics.