While the spotlight shines brightly on Gov. Chris Christie, and more moderate Republicans see a glimmer of hope to winning back the White House, two prominent Tea Party stars are very publicly rolling their eyes – senators Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio.
Both senators on Wednesday downplayed the view that Christie’s victory in Democrat-leaning New Jersey, and his strong showing among Latinos – he got 51 percent of this crucial electorate’s vote – was a model for the GOP to follow on a national level.
Cruz gave what, at best, could be considered a backhanded compliment.
“I think it is terrific that he is brash, that he is outspoken, and that he won his race,” Cruz, who is from Texas, told ABC News. “But I think we need more leaders in Washington with the courage to stand for principle. And in particular, Obamacare is not working.”
The ABC report then added: “Asked whether Christie is a true conservative, Cruz walked away. Aides said he didn’t have time for more questions.”
Cruz, Rubio and Christie are all considered potential presidential candidates in 2016. But given the dismal performance of the GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney in 2012 among Latino voters – he got only 27 percent of their support, while President Obama’s was 71 percent – political experts say Christie’s more moderate image and his broad appeal now put him in a stronger position to be the GOP nominee in 2016.
Rubio, Cruz’s fellow senator and fellow Cuban-American, expressed similar tepid feelings in an interview with CNN.
He said, essentially, that Christie’s style may be just fine for New Jersey, but that people should not be so quick to think it’s the magic GOP wand for the nation.
"I think we need to understand that some of these races don't apply to future races. Every race is different–it has a different set of factors – but I congratulate (Christie) on his win," he told CNN.
On the night of his victory, and the next day, Christie did not hesitate to gloat about achieving the kind of broad support that has eluded his party.
"We won the Latino vote last night," Christie said on Wednesday at a speech in Union City, traditionally an immigrant gateway, just a few miles from Manhattan, where 85 percent of the population is Latino. "Now find another Republican in America who’s won the Latino vote recently. Why? It’s because of the relationships. You get in, you build relationships, you build trust, and then people are willing to give you a chance. And of all the things that happened last night, that’s the thing that I am most gratified about."
He took a shot at his party.
He said that one of the biggest problems among Republicans is that they think they can fool people into thinking that they are interested in their issues if they only show up while campaigning for us. "You don’t. When you come just six months before an election people are going to be like, ‘Where have you been? And why should I trust you? This other guy over here he’s been here for years.’"
Rubio was considered a front-runner for GOP nominee in 2016, particularly when he assumed a leadership role in drafting a bipartisan immigration reform bill in the Senate that passed in June. But once that measure moved on to the House, where Republicans have a majority and conservatives hold considerable sway, action on immigration reform stalled, and Rubio virtually retreated from the issue.
That retreat put Rubio – whose support for immigration reform drew criticism from Tea Party groups –under attack from more moderate and liberal groups that had praised his leadership on the bill.
It also changed the talk about Rubio as a presidential contender to one of him as a possible vice presidential choice – for a more moderate Republican like Christie – in 2016.
"Clearly (Christie) was able to speak to the hopes and aspirations of people within New Jersey,” Rubio said. “That's important. We want to win everywhere and Governor Christie has certainly shown he has a way of winning in New Jersey, in states like New Jersey... so I congratulate him on that.”
Rubio also downplayed the defeat in the Virginia gubernatorial race of Ken Cuccinelli, a Tea Party conservative, and the victory of Democrat Terry McCauliffe. Cuccinelli enlisted the star power of Rubio in his campaign for governor while McCauliffe brought in prominent Latinos such as San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro, who is seen as a potential 2016 presidential candidate.
The message that resonated across the nation in Tuesday’s elections, Rubio said, is that it is necessary to "abandon the politics of big government and embrace free enterprise and limited government."
"I think Chris Christie tried to make that argument in New Jersey. I think Ken Cuccinelli made that argument in Virginia. It worked in one place, it didn't in another because of factors particular to those states," Rubio continued. "But on a national level I think that's a winning argument no matter who our nominee is in 2016 and certainly for our candidates running in 2014."
In a poll by Latino Decisions earlier this year of likely Latino voters, Christie ranked the third favorite of a field of possible 2016 presidential candidates, coming behind former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who got favorable ratings from 73 percent of the respondents, and Vice President Joe Biden, who got 58 percent.
Some 38 percent viewed Christie favorably, a stronger showing than San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro (34 percent) New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (33 percent) and Senator Rubio (31 percent).
“Christie is a pragmatic politician who understands the value of listening to his constituents, even on issues his party opposes,” said Cesar Vargas, director of the DREAM Action Coalition and a national activist for the DREAM Act, a measure that would allow undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as minors an chance to legalize their status. “Thus, with his support of the New Jersey Dream Act and by his proxy vote for immigration reform, it shows how a Republican can win and appeal to the Latino electorate. It's not a secret lesson but plainly obvious to everyone except House Republicans.”
To be sure, Christie’s relationship with Latinos in the Garden State has been checkered.
They lauded him when, in widely publicized remarks on immigration during a visit to a church in Dover, New Jersey in 2008, Christie, then U.S. Attorney, said that undocumented immigrants were not criminals.
“Being in this country without documentation is not a crime,” Christie said in his characteristic blunt manner. "The whole phrase of 'illegal immigrant' connotes that the person by just being here committed a crime ... We're not going to be arresting people who are here undocumented."
Christie routinely criticized then-Morristown Mayor Donald Cresitello, a Democrat who drew nationwide attention when he called for his town police to enforce immigration laws. After Arizona passed its immigration law, Christie said he opposed it and thought it should be purely a federal matter.
But Christie has incensed many Latino leaders and organizations in New Jersey over the years.
For his running mate in his first gubernatorial race, he chose then-Monmouth County Sheriff Kim Guadagno, who was unpopular with many Latinos for her decision to implement a controversial federal program, known as 287G, in which police can act as quasi-immigration agents.
Christie also implemented many public program cuts that Latino leaders said disproportionately hurt Latino residents who needed them. Nearly 30 percent of the Hispanics in New Jersey are uninsured and about 16 percent live in poverty.
Elizabeth Llorente can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on https://twitter.com/Liz_Llorente