Republican New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie debates Democratic challenger Barbara Buono at Montclair University in Montclair, N.J., on Tuesday. Christie's decision not to fight gay marriage in the state takes away an issue Buono had been campaigning hard on.
Republican Chris Christie's decision Monday to drop his administration's legal challenge to same-sex marriage made perfect sense for the governor of New Jersey,
But for the potential 2016 presidential candidate, whose path would presumably start in Iowa — where the Republican Party is dominated by social conservatives — the calculation is a bit more complicated.
Bob Vander Plaats, Iowa's powerful evangelical conservative, put it bluntly Monday.
"Gov. Christie has basically backed away from one of the most fundamental social institutions — marriage, between one man and one woman," said Vander Plaats, who heads The Family Leader organization and is considering a U.S. Senate run.
"This is not going to play well for him if he chooses to enter the Republican primary for president of the United States," he said. "It will have tentacles way beyond Iowa."
Politicos in New Hampshire, which traditionally follows Iowa in the primary ramp up, disagree.
"In no way does this negatively affect Gov. Christie here," says James Pindell, who writes Political Scoop and is the on-air political analyst for New Hampshire's WMUR-Channel 9.
"We've had gay marriage here since 2009," Pindell says, noting that it was a Republican-dominated state Legislature that beat back the last attempt to repeal the law.
"The lay of the land is not Iowa," he says.
Now, let's back up.
In New Jersey, polls show that more than 60 percent of voters support legalizing gay marriage and that an overwhelming majority wanted Christie — who is running for re-election next month — to drop his appeal of a court decision legalizing same-sex marriage in the state.
The openly gay daughter of Christie's Democratic opponent in the race, state Sen. Barbara Buono, has also been using the governor's opposition to same-sex marriage — he vetoed the state gay marriage bill last year — to help raise money for her mom.
"For Christie, this takes away an issue that Barbara Buono had been hitting hard," says Bob Ingle, senior political columnist for Gannett New Jersey newspapers. "We're a blue state, and the surprise in this was that it took this long."
Christie, who as a politician has consistently opposed same-sex marriage, couched his announcement in familiar conservative "activist court" terms.
"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," a statement from his office read, "the court has now spoken clearly as to their view of the New Jersey Constitution, and, therefore, same-sex marriage is the law."
Christie's decision to abandon a legal challenge came on the same day The Washington Post published a front-page article on efforts by some deep-pocketed Republican donors to "push the party toward a more welcoming middle ground."
That middle ground may ultimately be occupied by candidates who oppose same-sex marriage, the paper reported, but donors like hedge fund executive Paul Singer, whose son is gay, are encouraging rhetoric that is less hateful and supporting federal legislation barring workplace discrimination against gay Americans.
"It's important to remember that LGBT equality is more than just marriage," says Michael Cole-Schwartz of the Human Rights Campaign, a national gay rights advocacy group.
The campaign is working with Singer's American Unity Fund to promote the federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would prohibit hiring and workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. The Senate, controlled by Democrats, is expected to consider it before year's end, Cole-Schwartz says.
Its prospects for seeing daylight in the GOP-controlled House, however, remain dim, at best.
"We do realize," Cole-Schwartz says, "that the House Republican leadership has not shown any appetite to bring these measures to a vote."
In Iowa, Vander Plaats dismissed the "middle ground" efforts as a rejection of what he characterized as "core value issues."
"If the party and party leaders walk away from core value issues, this wing will walk away from the party," he said. "The party needs a leader who is a full-spectrum conservative on social issues like marriage, on fiscal issues like Obamacare and the debt ceiling, and on liberty issues like the role of the courts."
Someone, he says, like Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.
Christie was already in the sights of social conservatives for opposing so-called gay-conversion therapy for minors, and nominating an openly gay judge to the state Supreme Court.
"I don't see outrage," Vander Plaats says about reaction to Christie among those in his wing of the party, "just confirmation of their suspicions."
Same-sex marriage became legal in Iowa in 2009 through a state Supreme Court decision. A recent poll showed that while a majority of the state's voters oppose a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriages, a majority of Republicans — including 61 percent of evangelical Christians — support such a prohibition.
Back in New Hampshire, Pindell says the state's motto of "Live Free or Die" still informs voters' ideology about social issues.
"Most Republicans when you ask them about abortion or same-sex marriage, their answer is, 'I don't care,' " he said. "This will set Chris Christie apart from what will likely be a crowded primary field, and in a way he could benefit."
Though Ingle, the New Jersey columnist and author of Chris Christie: The Inside Story of His Rise to Power, notes that the 2016 presidential race is still "so far away," it's never too soon to begin the political speculation, right?
Ted Cruz, after all, is heading to Iowa this week to give the keynote address at the state Republican Party's annual Reagan Dinner and to go hunting with Rep. Steve King, a social conservative and Tea Party Republican.