Bridgewater, N.J. — I took a drive down I-287 to the Bridgewater Marriott, where the New Jersey GOP was celebrating primary night. It was a big, diverse group, especially considering their standard-bearer, Chris Christie, coasted to a virtually uncontested win alongside lieutenant governor Kim Guadagno.
As the ballroom crowd waved signs reading “Jersey Strong,” ”Can’t Stop Now,” and ”Four More Years,” and “Christie: The Governor,” Christie was joined on stage by members of his family, including his 19-year-old son Andrew, and Garden State first lady Mary Pat Christie.
The governor reflected on his unlikely defeat of incumbent Democrat Jon Corzine nearly four years ago, saying that he, along with Governor Bob McDonnell of Virginia, who also won election in 2009, showed that Republicans could win again after historic losses in 2008. Their victories, he said, “sent the country on a ride” that led to the Republican takeover of the U.S. House the next year, and to 30 GOP governorships across the country. Christie expressed his desire to build a coalition of Republicans, independents, and “right-thinking Democrats,” and stressed the need for the party to reach out ”not just people of wealth, but people who aspire to wealth” and to minorities, as well.
“America will be watching” the New Jersey election, Christie said.
In many ways, the real action was on the floor of the ballroom, where two potential appointees to the vacant U.S. Senate seat worked the crowds. Thomas Kean Jr., widely reported to be a frontrunner, declined to answer “hypotheticals” about whether he had discussed his prospects with Christie, and whether he was interested in the job. When I asked him how the cost of holding a special election three weeks before a general – as Christie has opted to do — could be justified to taxpayers, Kean hewed to Christie’s line on the need to give New Jerseyans a “voice and a choice” in the U.S. Senate as soon as possible.
Pundits have rightly pointed out that in separating the special election from the general, and thus avoiding having to share a ballot with Newark phenom Cory Booker, Christie appears to be protecting his comfortable lead in polls. But I asked Kean Jr. how important it was for state Republicans, who hold out hope for flipping the legislature in Trenton, to have Christie as the biggest name on the ballot.
“It’s tremendously helpful,” Kean said.
I also talked to Jon Bramnick, the GOP leader in the state lower house and, according to Bob Costa’s sources, another name on Christie’s short list to replace Lautenberg. “It’s always good to be on the short list,” Bramnick smiled, declining to comment further on his prospects. On criticism over Christie’s special-election decision (former acting governor, and Democrat, Richard Codey, today called it a “middle finger” to taxpayers), Bramnick said that “whatever Chris Christie does, Democrats don’t like,” adding that they would have complained if Christie had let his appointee serve out the remainder of Lautenberg’s term, as well.
Bramnick echoed the general sentiment of rank-and-filers in the room. In an informal survey, none would criticize Christie’s decision on the timing of the elction. I’m sure there were critics there, but none talked to me — or admitted it. The crowd was enthusiastically pro-Christie, even for a pro-Christie rally.
After his remarks, the governor exited stage left to, I think, a Bon Jovi song, and N.J. GOPers filed out. They’ll have to turn their attention quickly to the special-election primary.