When Republican Gov. Chris Christie announced Monday he was surrendering the fight against same-sex marriage in New Jersey, prominent social conservatives quickly lined up to excoriate the prospective 2016 presidential candidate, branding him a coward, a quitter, and "an unreliable ally for true conservatives."
But Christie's true base of supporters couldn't have been happier.
Indeed, amid all the weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth on the religious right, the GOP's donor class quietly rejoiced that Christie — widely viewed as the golden boy of his party's moderate, Northeastern, corporate establishment — had chosen to abandon this particular culture war battle. Though few of them are eager to acknowledge it on the record, the monied tri-state-dwelling donors who made up Mitt Romney's core base of donors and are likely to fund Christie's 2016 campaign generally support same-sex marriage. More importantly, they see it as a losing issue for their party.
To this crowd, Christie was demonstrating sharp political skill and admirable pragmatism — not weak-willed squishiness — in his decision to politely reiterate his personal belief in "traditional marriage," and then bow out of what would almost certainly be a long, tense, brand-damaging legal battle he was likely to lose.
"They would rather not see this issue on the table [in 2016]," said one high-level GOP fundraiser, speaking of the party's New York donors. "They're focused on economic issues and trying to win... I can see [Christie's move] playing well to a great deal of them."
As Christie cruises to a landslide reelection in New Jersey, he has deftly defined himself against the national GOP, positioning himself as an independent, practical politician who is interested in governing, not waging quixotic ideological battles, or pandering to his party's right wing in order to set himself up for a presidential bid.
But the reality is that just as Ted Cruz and Rand Paul have spent this year burnishing their credentials with their respective bases, Christie has done the same with the Acela corridor Republican elites who make up the core of his coalition. The red meat just comes in different forms for different fans.
To people like Paul Singer, the hedge fund titan who founded American Unity PAC to encourage Republicans to support marriage equality, Christie's surrender was cause for celebration.
Jeff Cook-McCormac, a senior adviser to Singer's PAC, praised Christie's move to BuzzFeed.
"While he didn't get the policy outcome he was looking for, he was able to navigate this in a way that's really thoughtful and respectful of the sentiments of a diverse community within New Jersey," Cook-McCormac said. "I mean, he's a rare guy who's been able to appeal to people with sincerely held beliefs on both sides of this issue."
He added, "The donor community are particularly looking for leaders who can unite people, and who can find a path back to winning elections."