Josh Kurtz: O’Malley vs. Christie

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By: Josh Kurtz 

It wasn’t quite the Full Ginsburg, but New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) was a guest on four of the network chat shows Sunday.

That’s hardly surprising. The national media have already declared Christie the frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016, based on his smashing reelection last week, and a decent segment of the moneyed GOP establishment is inclined to agree – or at least is keeping its fingers crossed.

On the shows Sunday, Christie was unafraid to criticize the far-right zealots who have hijacked the national GOP. On "Fox News Sunday," the governor -- who according to exit polls took 51 percent of the Hispanic vote -- urged fellow Republicans to reach out to voters who have rejected the party.

"That's the way the Republican Party will make itself more relevant to a broader group of folks," Christie said. "And the fact is: That's exactly what Ronald Reagan would have done and did do when he was campaigning for president. I did that campaigning for governor because I believed it's what's right to do as governor when you represent all the people."

Still, Christie will try to burnish his conservative credentials before turning his attention to a national campaign. He’s expected to push tax cuts and education reform (translation: whacking the teachers unions some more) in the next year, even as he gives lip service to the notion of bipartisanship.

And Christie isn’t keeping his hands off national politics completely. In a matter of days, he’ll become chairman of the Republican Governors Association, where he and his political team will be butting heads with one of Martin O’Malley’s top political lieutenants, and his eyes and ears in Washington, D.C., Colm O’Comartun, the executive director of the Democratic Governors Association (O’Malley, a former DGA chairman, remains the organization’s finance director).

Needless to say, there’s a lot at stake for both governors in 2014 as they ramp up for their expected White House bids.

It would be hyperbole to say that Christie and O’Malley find themselves on a collision course. But the fates of both these ambitious men may be tied together in direct and indirect ways.

Christie comes out of his reelection with numbers that O’Malley can only envy. He took 60 percent of the vote in a fairly liberal state, and according to the exit polls, 51 percent of New Jerseyans think he’d make a good president. O’Malley took 56 percent when he was reelected in a considerably bluer state in 2010, and in a Gonzales poll in January, only one-quarter of Marylanders said they wanted O’Malley to run for president.

(New Jersey as a deep blue state is something of a myth. It’s true that no Republican has won a presidential election there since 1988 and no Republican has been elected to the U.S. Senate since 1972. But the GOP has won six of the last nine gubernatorial elections there and half the state’s delegation in the House of Representatives is Republican. Maryland, of course, has only elected one GOP governor since 1966.)

For Christie, one of the challenges in the months ahead is proving that he’s thick-skinned enough to prosper in presidential politics. His “I yam what I yam” persona has plenty of appeal, but the fact remains that he doesn’t take too kindly to criticism, and he could prove to be combustible and a bully –  characteristics nobody wants in a president. He’ll be attacked by the right and the left in the coming months – can he parlay that into a message of pragmatic centrism or will he explode with rage?

O’Malley could wind up being one of the Democrats’ most important critics/provocateurs of Christie. Already he’s attacked Christie over budget priorities, public employee unions, same-sex marriage – and Bruce Springsteen. During Christie’s reelection campaign, even though the outcome was never in doubt, O’Malley wrote a fundraising solicitation for and stumped with his outgunned Democratic challenger, state Sen. Barbara Buono (O’Malley, and O’Comartun’s DGA, it must be said, also did a lot to elect Terry McAuliffe in Virginia last week).

Christie is sure to use his leadership in the immediate aftermath of Superstorm Sandy a year ago as a major selling point as he runs for president – just as Rudy Giuliani, with whom Christie is occasionally compared, used 9-11 for political purposes. But environmental groups are prepared to argue that Christie’s follow-up and mitigation efforts have been less than stellar – and that his overall record on climate matters has been anything but proactive.

"As governor, he's been seen as a larger-than-life leader on Sandy, but the actual policy isn't there," New Jersey Sierra Club Director Jeff Tittel told one of my colleagues at Environment & Energy Daily last week.

Tittel characterized Christie as a climate change skeptic, noting that the governor ended New Jersey's participation in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative for the Northeast and has diverted funds intended to develop renewable energy resources to help balance the state budget.

"They've rebuilt boardwalks in the exact same place that got destroyed by Sandy. How is that resilient?” he said. “They've cut the ribbons on the new boardwalk, and a block away, people are still homeless.”

This seems like a new and fertile line of attack for O’Malley, who is waging an aggressive effort to appeal to national environmental groups with his record (he’ll be the keynote speaker at a national League of Conservation Voters dinner in New York tomorrow night, and President Obama just appointed him to a new federal task force on climate preparedness and resilience. His efforts to combat climate change and promote renewable energy – in the same region of the country as New Jersey – stand as a nice contrast to Christie, and he's hoping to push through even more green initiatives in the upcoming legislative session.

Looking ahead to next year, and the proxy fight between Christie and O’Malley, 36 governorships are at stake. Disastrous for Democrats as the wipeout of 2010 was on Capitol Hill, it was even more catastrophic at the state level, where the GOP seized the majority of governorships and several state legislatures that had long been in Democratic hands.

Republicans in 2010 won gubernatorial elections in the critical swing states of Florida, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin, Iowa, Nevada and New Mexico. Even though Democrats have recruited good challengers in many of those states, Republican incumbents are currently favored in all of them, except Pennsylvania. But even there, and even with a highly unpopular Republican governor, Tom Corbett, Democrats are fighting history – since World War II, every Pennsylvania governor who has wanted a second term, regardless of party, has been granted one by the voters.

No one knows for sure what the national electoral landscape will look like in 2014, but it’s looking more likely than ever that it will be a typical “six-year itch” election, especially with Obamacare mired in so many problems. If that’s the case, Christie will have a lot more to boast about on the morning after Election Day than O’Malley and his surrogates.

And as the 2016 White House campaign dawns, the national media are creating a lot of the buzz surrounding Christie – whereas O’Malley is forced to remind reporters, as he did during the summer, “By the end of this year I think we’re on course to have a body of work that lays the framework for a candidacy in 2016.”

In the end, though, both O'Malley and Christie may find their ambitions blocked by the ultimate political juggernaut: Hillary Clinton.

Josh Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily, a Capitol Hill publication. He can be reached at .

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Josh Kurtz has been writing about Maryland politics since late 1995. Louie Goldstein, William Donald Schaefer and Pete Rawlings were alive, but the Intercounty Connector, as far as anyone could tell, was dead.

But some things never change: Mike Miller is still in charge of the Senate. Gerry Evans and Bruce Bereano are among the top-earning lobbyists in Annapolis. Steny Hoyer is still waiting for Nancy Pelosi to disappear. And Maryland Republicans are still struggling to be relevant.

The media landscape in Maryland has changed a lot, and Kurtz is happy to write weekly for Center Maryland. He's been writing a column for the website since it launched in January 2010.

In his "real" job, Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily down on Capitol Hill. But he'll always find Maryland politics more fascinating.

Kurtz grew up in New York City and attended public schools there. He has a BA in History from the University of Wisconsin and an MS in Journalism from Columbia University. He's married with two daughters and lives in Takoma Park, Md. He hopes you'll drop him a line, or maybe go out for a meal with him, because he's always hungry -- for political gossip.