Chris Christie's genius scheme to broaden GOP's base: Attack voting rights!

The guv says he's an inclusive Republican. So why is he sounding right-wing dog whistles about "voter fraud"?

By Luke Brinker
Published June 30, 2015 2:15PM (EDT)
  (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)
(AP/J. Scott Applewhite)

It wasn't long ago that the notion of a Chris Christie presidential campaign struck fear in the hearts of Democrats. Campaigning as a consensus-building, inclusive Republican, Christie coasted to re-election in blue New Jersey in 2013, capturing more than 60 percent of the vote. In trouncing opponent Barbara Buono, Christie also made inroads among crucial Democratic constituencies, winning nearly half of Latino voters and one in five African American voters. For a party confronting the prospect of demographic doom in presidential years, Christie appeared a near-salvific figure.

He had troubles with his own party, of course. His heresies on issues like gun control, immigration reform, and gay conversion therapy drew the ire of the GOP base, but like establishment-oriented Republicans Mitt Romney and John McCain, it looked like Christie could overcome the rabid right's suspicions: Riding high after his re-election victory, Christie topped his prospective GOP rivals in national polling. There'd be inevitable struggles along the way, but Christie was a clear contender for the Republican nod -- and if he managed to capture it, Hillary Clinton was at grave risk of losing the presidency yet again; head-to-head match-ups in late 2013 showed Christie tied with or even leading Clinton, at a time when she led most other Republicans by healthy margins.

What a difference a year and a half makes. Christie's post-re-election honeymoon proved fleeting, ending rather unpleasantly with the Bridgegate scandal and mounting revelations of his administration's heavy-handed political tactics. Once billed as the top GOP threat to Clinton, Christie now appeared no more electable than Tea Party firebrand Ted Cruz. And given that Christie's hopes of winning the nomination rested in large part on convincing voters he was the one man who could dispatch the former secretary of state, the rationale for a Christie bid grew increasingly thin. Indeed, by early 2015, it was clear Christie couldn't even count on his most loyal constituency: namely, the plutocratic mega-donors who had pleaded Christie to run for president in 2012. It wasn't long before even one of Christie's closest friends in politics defected to Jeb Bush.

Faced with the possibility of utter humiliation, Christie, who will formally announce his presidential bid today, has decided his exceedingly narrow path to the GOP nod requires a hard right turn. The erstwhile champion of immigration reform has abandoned his support for a path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants, and Christie has staked his bid on a screw-the-seniors platform of slashing social insurance. He's also sounded the standard cultural conservative notes, slamming the librul media and dinging the Supreme Court for its historic marriage equality ruling. Put simply, in the months to come, we'll be seeing a lot of the Chris Christie who screams at unionized teachers and tells voters to shut up; the guy who hugged President Obama and blasted House Republicans for delaying Hurricane Sandy relief will be missing in action.

In case there was any remaining doubt that Christie will run as a garden-variety right-winger, the governor has now brought the GOP's crusade against voting rights to New Jersey, which witnessed its lowest-ever turnout in last fall's midterm elections. The Democratic-controlled state legislature this week gave final approval to the Democracy Act, legislation championed by voting rights advocates and New Jersey Working Families; the bill would institute automatic voter registration for any New Jerseyan obtaining a driver's license and expand early voting, mail voting, and online registration. Though the legislation builds on proven reforms enacted in other states -- Oregon recently became the first to enact automatic voter registration -- Christie has vowed to veto the bill, railing against it with standard GOP boilerplate about the phantom "voter fraud" problem.

"I don't think that people ought to be automatically registered to vote," Christie said last week, adding, for good get-off-my-lawn measure, "Is it really too much to ask to ask someone to fill out a form?"

Perhaps detecting in his adversaries the same Machiavellian instincts that have defined his administration, Christie continued, "There's no question in my mind that there are some advocates of this who are looking to increase the opportunity for voter fraud. I think there's much more politics behind this than there is democracy."

Lectures about democracy are a bit rich coming from a man who has taken every available opportunity to quash accountable government -- including by waging an estimated 23 court fights to keep state documents sealed. But such rhetoric is now standard GOP fare, despite an abundance of evidence indicating that the "voter fraud" epidemic is a myth -- and plenty more evidence that Republican voter suppression measures have disenfranchised legitimate voters, many of them racial and ethnic minorities. These are the tactics of an overwhelmingly white party concerned not with democracy, but with self-perpetuation. And Christie, who once seemed like the figure who could broaden the GOP's base, has now joined their lot.

Luke Brinker

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2016 Elections Chris Christie Diversity New Jersey Republicans Voting Voting Rights