For Christie, gay marriage over as an issue - maybe

Gov. Christie will not face gay marriage as a campaign issue next month, but it may resurface if he runs for president in 2016.
Gov. Christie will not face gay marriage as a campaign issue next month, but it may resurface if he runs for president in 2016. (AP)
Posted: October 23, 2013

With a two-sentence letter from his attorney general to the state Supreme Court, Gov. Christie walked off the battlefield of perhaps the most divisive social fight of 2013.

But it doesn't mean the war is over.

Christie's decision to drop an appeal to the state Supreme Court of a lower court decision allowing gay marriage is packed with political implications both for his reelection effort Nov. 5 and for 2016, when he is expected to be a Republican presidential hopeful.

Dropping the appeal may have immediate benefits for Christie with little long-term damage. Given the unanimous tally from the state Supreme Court on Friday to reject his request for a stay on the initial ruling, Christie clearly made a pragmatic decision. The Supreme Court would not have ruled on gay marriage until early next year, and then it would have almost certainly affirmed it.

By dropping the appeal, Christie avoided further expense of tax dollars on the case and set aside a possible distraction at the start of his second term.

First, though, he has to win that second term. Dropping the appeal could help in that regard, too, because it immediately rendered moot the argument from his opponent, State Sen. Barbara Buono (D., Middlesex), that he was acting against gay marriage to help him win the presidential nomination.

If you're a New Jersey voter and this was your one problem with Christie, pfft. That issue has evaporated.

But there's also a chance Buono can get some mileage out of this. Buono has standing on the issue - one of her daughters is gay - and her argument fits a broader narrative that Christie makes decisions for New Jersey to appeal to hard-core conservative voters nationwide.

So far, this argument hasn't swayed voters. But with two weeks left in the campaign, Buono can try to ride the news cycle and get national attention (and national donations) to help close a substantial Christie lead in the polls.

On Friday, after the court denied Christie's request for a stay, Buono appeared on the MSNBC show of liberal Rachel Maddow for the first time in her campaign. And she made another appearance on MSNBC on Monday afternoon.

Voters certainly support Buono on this issue. A Rutgers-Eagleton poll released Monday showed that 61 percent of New Jersey voters - including 49 percent of Republicans - support same-sex marriage.

But the views of Republicans in early presidential primary states may matter more to Christie's political future.

It's possible that gay marriage - which has rapidly become both legal and increasingly accepted - will no longer be a hot-button issue in 2016. Already, the two big early-voting presidential states, New Hampshire and Iowa, have legalized gay marriage.

If that's the case, that's good for Christie.

But if not, antigay marriage Republican primary opponents will remind voters that not only did Christie preside over a state as it allowed gay marriages, but he dropped an appeal on the issue.

New Jersey State Sen. Mike Doherty (R., Warren) foreshadowed that opposition Monday when he issued a rare Republican rebuke of the governor, saying that "by dropping the state's appeal, Gov. Christie has acquiesced to the same judicial activism that he has long railed against."

If this argument is made in a presidential campaign, Christie can respond by saying that he did more than any Republican in other Democratic states to prevent gay people from getting married: He vetoed a gay marriage bill, his attorney general vigorously fought a gay marriage lawsuit, he filed an appeal after losing that case, and he sought a stay (or a hold) on the ultimate decision allowing gay nuptials.

"Activist judges," he will say, stood in his way, as he says they often do. He will hope that no one notices that his lone appointee to the court, Anne Patterson, agreed with her colleagues in opposing Christie's request for a stay.

Regardless, Christie has long been viewed suspiciously by social conservative voters. Those who may blame him for dropping the appeal would probably not vote for him anyway.

Yet what is viewed as insufficient opposition to gay marriage in a GOP presidential primary may be seen as overly aggressive opposition in a general presidential election. Independent and Democratic voters may see it as an indication that Christie isn't tolerant, progressive, or hip enough to lead the country.

Still, gay marriage might exist in most of the country at that point. If that's the case, how much of a campaign issue would it be?

That's why in the end, both in New Jersey and nationally, Christie may be able to do with gay marriage the same thing he has done with so many other issues: Shake off the critics and move on.

609-217-8355 @mattkatz00

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