Chris Christie’s Gay Rights Gamble
There are multiple reasons why social conservatives have never quite warmed to Chris Christie. On Monday, Oct. 21, he gave them another.
After vowing to challenge the September ruling by a New Jersey judge legalizing same-sex marriage in the Garden State, a spokesman for the Republican governor announced Monday morning, Oct. 21, that Christie had asked the state's attorney general to abandon that fight, effectively making New Jersey the 14th state, plus D.C., to embrace marriage equality.
The announcement came hours after same-sex nuptials began in city halls across the state following a unanimous decision by the New Jersey Supreme Court on Friday, Oct. 18, denying a stay requested by the Christie administration to put on hold the lower court's ruling while the case was appealed. Although not a final ruling in the case, which was expected to hear oral arguments early next year, many looked to the 7-0 decision denying the stay as a preview of how the New Jersey Supreme Court could rule when it reached the merits of the case. The Christie administration appeared to agree, stating, in essence, that they believed the battle had already been lost.
"Chief Justice Stuart Rabner left no ambiguity about the unanimous court's view on the ultimate decision in this matter when he wrote, 'Same-sex couples who cannot marry are not treated equally under the law today,'" a Christie spokesman said.
Christie has long been outspoken about his personal opposition to same-sex marriage. At a gubernatorial debate this month, Christie said if one of his four children came out as gay he would "grab them and hug them and tell them I love them," but also reiterate his belief marriage is between a man and a woman.
Six years after New Jersey began permitting civil unions for same-sex couples, the state Legislature approved marriage-equality in February 2012, only for Christie to veto the bill under the argument that the issue should be left to voters at the ballot box. In the statement released Monday, Christie's spokesman painted his decision as a pragmatic one.
"Although the Governor strongly disagrees with the Court substituting its judgment for the constitutional process of the elected branches or a vote of the people, the Court has now spoken clearly as to their view of the New Jersey Constitution and, therefore, same-sex marriage is the law," he said. "The Governor will do his constitutional duty and ensure his Administration enforces the law as dictated by the New Jersey Supreme Court."
It's that kind of pragmatism that has made Christie an incredibly popular Republican governor in a blue state, and that will undoubtedly come to define his national identity when he likely runs for president in 2016. But while advocates hailed Christie's decision, with Log Cabin Republicans stating he did the "right thing," those on the far right of his own party saw their worst suspicions of the Northeastern governor realized.
Accusing Christie of "throwing in the towel on marriage," National Organization for Marriage President Brian Brown said Christie had failed the test of a true leader "to walk a principled walk no matter the difficulty of the path."
"Regrettably, Governor Christie's decision to surrender on marriage reveals him to be a man who lacks the courage of his supposed convictions," Brown said in a statement. "As far as we are concerned, it's a disqualifying failure. His surrender on marriage effectively surrenders any chance he might have had to secure the GOP nomination for president."
Family Research Council President Tony Perkins said his organization was still analyzing Christie's decision to drop the appeal, but added, "On its face, it seems Christie not only yielded to judicial activism -- but aided it by capitulating. Apparently, the Governor is giving up all hopes of identifying as a conservative in any future political aspirations."
Christie has provoked the ire of these critics before. It was just two months ago that Christie, who has publicly said he does not think being gay is a choice, signed legislation prohibiting licensed therapists from practicing "sexual orientation change" therapy on minors. The move made New Jersey the second state in the nation after California to enact such a ban. At the time, FRC said Christie's decision "undermines freedom." Perkins later declined to invite Christie to the organization's annual Values Voter Summit earlier this month - a frequent pit stop for presidential hopefuls seeking to court social conservatives.
It would be foolish to believe Christie's decision was not politically calculated. Despite cries to the contrary from organizations like NOM and FRC, the country is changing, as every poll shows. A growing majority of Americans support marriage equality. What's more, so do an overwhelming number of Americans under the age of 30, including those who identify as conservative.
Following the ushering in of marriage equality in New Jersey, more than a third of the U.S. population now lives in one of the 14 states, along with D.C., that permits same-sex marriage. With movement in the courts and legislatures of Hawaii, Illinois and New Mexico, the number of states could soon increase to 17 before the end of this month. As BuzzFeed's Chris Geidner notes, should marriage equality win in those three states, more than 200 electoral votes would rest in marriage-equality states.
Christie will continue to be criticized for his decision, and while it seems likely he won't change his "personal" position on same-sex marriage anytime soon, the 2012 presidential election showed what little play LGBT issues got in both the primaries and general election.
"The most mainstream Republican possibility in 2016 will come from a marriage equality state - just as the Pope is the first to have come from a country that already has marriage equality," wrote Andrew Sullivan. "This matters. Leaders who come from places where equality is working are much less hostile to gay dignity than in those places where it remains a frightening abstraction."
What criticism Chrisitie does receive he will likely try to deflect by blaming "activist judges," but he was never going to be the candidate for social conservatives anyway.
In contrast, a few state lines away in Virginia, the right wing of the Republican Party might find a man who personifies its ideal presidential contender in Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, who hopes to become the commonwealth's governor. This social warrior went so far as to try to take his fight defending Virginia's anti-sodomy law to the Supreme Court - which declared such laws unconstitutional in 2003 and rejected Cuccinelli's appeal earlier this month. He's running against a vulnerable Democratic opponent, Terry McAuliffe, in what is generally considered a red state.
And he's losing.
With two weeks before Election Day, Cuccinelli is trailing McAuliffe by eight points. When voters in both Virginia and New Jersey go the polls on Nov. 5, it will be a referendum of sorts on two very different types of Republican candidates in states that mirror the complexity of a national election. And, barring a dramatic upset in either race, Cuccinelli will likely lose, while Christie, who is leading his Democratic opponent by nearly 30 points, will soar to victory.