Frank Donatelli: Republicans about to Beat a Path to Trenton

The biggest winner in the 2013 off-off-year elections was clearly New Jersey governor Chris Christie — and if past performance is any indication, we can expect heavy traffic along the road to Trenton in the next several years.

Christie’s triumph would be singularly impressive, even in a good Republican year. The first pro-life Republican governor in one of the nation’s bluest and most traditionally left-of-center states in two decades, the ex-prosecutor proved his vote-getting prowess beyond a reasonable doubt, winning a landslide reelection victory of nearly two to one.

Exit polls from New Jersey point to the breadth of Christie’s appeal, even among non-traditional constituencies. Christie carried two-thirds of independents and seniors, three-quarters of working-class whites, and even ran competitively among union households (46 percent) and Democrats (32 percent).

It’s way too soon for talk of presidential politics to advance beyond the parlor-game stage, but there’s little doubt Christie’s win will immediately propel him to the top of the GOP presidential pecking order.

Christie’s situation is reminiscent of what happened to then–Texas governor George W. Bush in 1998.

That year, too, Republicans suffered stunning losses: For the first time since 1822, the party out of power actually lost seats during the so-called six-year itch” — the midterm elections during the incumbent president’s second term. Then, just as now, Republicans had been hurt by perceived legislative overreach during the twin government shutdowns of 1995 and 1996, and their overreaction to the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Reeling from defeat, House Republicans soon forced the retirement of then-speaker Newt Gingrich.

Swimming against those tides, Bush emerged with a similarly lopsided reelection victory in the Texas governor’s race, winning women and an impressive — for a Republican — 40 percent of Hispanics and 27 percent of African Americans.

Then, like now, the GOP was still staggering from a devastating presidential defeat, and George W. Bush suddenly emerged as the one candidate who appeared capable of assembling a winning Republican majority by reaching well beyond the party’s traditional base.