Beware the undertow on the Jersey Shore

Governor Chris Christie's cosy relationship with Obama could turn and bite him in the Primaries.

The Jersey Shore is a very important place for the people of New Jersey. This is where they come to play, to let their hair down. Many, maybe most New Jerseyans, even those who live on the other end of the state, have some sort of fond memories of the place; a beach house rented with friends after graduating high school, maybe; a day-trip to the beach or a waterfront funfair as a kid on a sunny day. This is why, when Hurricane Sandy punished the Shore late last year, it had such a psychological effect. If they could have fought the storm bare-fisted, New Jerseyans would do it. “It's a New Jersey thing,” they'd say.

This week, President Obama visited the Shore to see how it was doing post-Sandy; and while he was there he took the opportunity to hang out with New Jersey's larger-than-life Republican governor Chris Christie. It was quite the love-in. Christie, who before Sandy had been a fairly partisan critic of the administration, has been admirably unafraid to praise Obama's handling of the storm relief. Similarly, Christie's handling of Hurricane Sandy won him support among many moderates – and from the President – for his brash, no-nonsense approach. Famously, his abandonment of Presidential campaigning in general – and Romney by implication – on Fox and Friends which went viral after appearing on The Daily Show soon after the storm. But his cosy relationship with Obama, while it allows him to bask in Presidential stardust, may soon make things difficult for the ambitious governor.

There is no denying that Christie is a big character, brash and straight-talking and New Jersey through-and-through, very popular in his home state and well-known nationwide. New Jersey is a blue – Democrat – state, and, as the New York Times' Nate Silver observes, drifting leftward by the day; Obama won there last year by a margin of nearly 20 percent. But Christie's personal approval rating there is 69 per cent; an NBC News/Marist poll earlier this month projected him to win re-election against Democrat challenger Barbara Buono 60 per cent to 28 in November.

As things stand, along with Florida Senator Marco Rubio – protégée of Jeb Bush – Christie probably represents the greatest threat to the Democrats come the 2016 Presidential election. He is portrayed nationally as a moderate – and certainly is one next to Rubio, even though he has shown evidence in the past of being further to the right on issues like abortion and gay marriage than many seem to believe.

But as much as it looks good in times of storms and endears him to swing voters – and is even (god forbid in politics) the right way for a leader to behave – his bipartisan cosying-up to the President is a risky game for him to play. If he truly has his eye on the White House, Christie will soon face the unenviable task of having to sell himself to the Republican base in the primaries as a prospective Presidential pretender.

Primary elections, the elections within the party to choose the candidate, give an extraordinary amount of power to small, arbitrary places, meaningful often for reasons of historical oddity, like Iowa, for example, whose caucuses are obsessed-over purely because they get to go first and set the tone. In a lot of cases, the local GOP parties are dominated by hard-right Tea Party activists, which meant in the last election that some really strange candidates get their chance to shape the message.

The Republican primaries, like the Daily Mail's message boards, are where the nutters live. They are what really killed Mitt Romney's chances in 2012. A moderate at heart, a defecit hawk but not a bible-thumper, Romney had to tack so far and so suddenly to the right to fend off candidates like Michelle Bachmann and Herman Cain on issues like abortion and immigration that by the time he got through to the convention all his policy positions were shot to hell – even before Obama had started campaigning. It is in these primaries that things are going to get tough for Christie, who was facing criticism from the hard-line Fox News Republicans for what they see as disloyalty even before he bromantically gifted Obama a teddy-bear in front of the nation's media on the New Jersey boardwalk.

The manoeuvrings for 2016 have already begun. That's what the Benghazi scandal is really: the first scrapings-together by the right of potential ammunition to use against Hilary Clinton if she runs. Are the Democrats are trying to tempt one of their most dangerous potential opponents with a political honeytrap? Maybe not intentionally, but even if it's an accident, that's effectively what's happening. Today's photo-op will give Christie's opponents plenty of ammunition. The GOP is the party, remember, which fielded candidates in the last primary who were still loudly demanding to see Obama's birth certificate, who believed that “the secular-socialist machine presents as great a threat to Amerca as Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union”, who appear to think that Obama is a satanist plot.

They, and those whose support feeds them, are who "Christie for President" will be dealing with when primary season rolls around. Grinning pictures with Obama, high-fiving by the seaside? That's not a winning look to those guys.

Obama and Christie at their joint press conference on the Jersey Shore. Photograph: Getty Images

Nicky Woolf is a writer for the Guardian based in the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

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Who will win in Copeland? The Labour heartland hangs in the balance

The knife-edge by-election could end 82 years of Labour rule on the West Cumbrian coast.

Fine, relentless drizzle shrouds Whitehaven, a harbour town exposed on the outer edge of Copeland, West Cumbria. It is the most populous part of the coastal north-western constituency, which takes in everything from this old fishing port to Sellafield nuclear power station to England’s tallest mountain Scafell Pike. Sprawling and remote, it protrudes from the heart of the Lake District out into the Irish Sea.

Billy, a 72-year-old Whitehaven resident, is out for a morning walk along the marina with two friends, his woolly-hatted head held high against the whipping rain. He worked down the pit at the Haig Colliery for 27 years until it closed, and now works at Sellafield on contract, where he’s been since the age of 42.

“Whatever happens, a change has got to happen,” he says, hands stuffed into the pockets of his thick fleece. “If I do vote, the Bootle lass talks well for the Tories. They’re the favourites. If me mam heard me saying this now, she’d have battered us!” he laughs. “We were a big Labour family. But their vote has gone. Jeremy Corbyn – what is he?”

The Conservatives have their sights on traditional Labour voters like Billy, who have been returning Labour MPs for 82 years, to make the first government gain in a by-election since 1982.

Copeland has become increasingly marginal, held with just 2,564 votes by former frontbencher Jamie Reed, who resigned from Parliament last December to take a job at the nuclear plant. He triggered a by-election now regarded by all sides as too close to call. “I wouldn’t put a penny on it,” is how one local activist sums up the mood.

There are 10,000 people employed at the Sellafield site, and 21,000 jobs are promised for nearby Moorside – a project to build Europe’s largest nuclear power station now thrown into doubt, with Japanese company Toshiba likely to pull out.

Tories believe Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on nuclear power (he limply conceded it could be part of the “energy mix” recently, but his long prevarication betrayed his scepticism) and opposition to Trident, which is hosted in the neighbouring constituency of Barrow-in-Furness, could put off local employees who usually stick to Labour.

But it’s not that simple. The constituency may rely on nuclear for jobs, but I found a notable lack of affection for the industry. While most see the employment benefits, there is less enthusiasm for Sellafield being part of their home’s identity – particularly in Whitehaven, which houses the majority of employees in the constituency. Also, unions representing Sellafield workers have been in a dispute for months with ministers over pension cut plans.

“I worked at Sellafield for 30 years, and I’m against it,” growls Fred, Billy’s friend, a retiree of the same age who also used to work at the colliery. “Can you see nuclear power as safer than coal?” he asks, wild wiry eyebrows raised. “I’m a pit man; there was just nowhere else to work [when the colliery closed]. The pension scheme used to be second-to-none, now they’re trying to cut it, changing the terms.”

Derek Bone, a 51-year-old who has been a storeman at the plant for 15 years, is equally unconvinced. I meet him walking his dog along the seafront. “This county, Cumbria, Copeland, has always been a nuclear area – whether we like it or don’t,” he says, over the impatient barks of his Yorkshire terrier Milo. “But people say it’s only to do with Copeland. It ain’t. It employs a lot of people in the UK, outside the county – then they’re spending the money back where they’re from, not here.”

Such views might be just enough of a buffer against the damage caused by Corbyn’s nuclear reluctance. But the problem for Labour is that neither Fred nor Derek are particularly bothered about the result. While awareness of the by-election is high, many tell me that they won’t be voting this time. “Jeremy Corbyn says he’s against it [nuclear], now he’s not, and he could change his mind – I don’t believe any of them,” says Malcolm Campbell, a 55-year-old lorry driver who is part of the nuclear supply chain.

Also worrying for Labour is the deprivation in Copeland. Everyone I speak to complains about poor infrastructure, shoddy roads, derelict buildings, and lack of investment. This could punish the party that has been in power locally for so long.

The Tory candidate Trudy Harrison, who grew up in the coastal village of Seascale and now lives in Bootle, at the southern end of the constituency, claims local Labour rule has been ineffective. “We’re isolated, we’re remote, we’ve been forgotten and ignored by Labour for far too long,” she says.

I meet her in the town of Millom, at the southern tip of the constituency – the opposite end to Whitehaven. It centres on a small market square dominated by a smart 19th-century town hall with a mint-green domed clock tower. This is good Tory door-knocking territory; Millom has a Conservative-led town council.

While Harrison’s Labour opponents are relying on their legacy vote to turn out, Harrison is hoping that the same people think it’s time for a change, and can be combined with the existing Tory vote in places like Millom. “After 82 years of Labour rule, this is a huge ask,” she admits.

Another challenge for Harrison is the threat to services at Whitehaven’s West Cumberland Hospital. It has been proposed for a downgrade, which would mean those seeking urgent care – including children, stroke sufferers, and those in need of major trauma treatment and maternity care beyond midwifery – would have to travel the 40-mile journey to Carlisle on the notoriously bad A595 road.

Labour is blaming this on Conservative cuts to health spending, and indeed, Theresa May dodged calls to rescue the hospital in her campaign visit last week. “The Lady’s Not For Talking,” was one local paper front page. It also helps that Labour’s candidate, Gillian Troughton, is a St John Ambulance driver, who has driven the dangerous journey on a blue light.

“Seeing the health service having services taken away in the name of centralisation and saving money is just heart-breaking,” she tells me. “People are genuinely frightened . . . If we have a Tory MP, that essentially gives them the green light to say ‘this is OK’.”

But Harrison believes she would be best-placed to reverse the hospital downgrade. “[I] will have the ear of government,” she insists. “I stand the very best chance of making sure we save those essential services.”

Voters are concerned about the hospital, but divided on the idea that a Tory MP would have more power to save it.

“What the Conservatives are doing with the hospitals is disgusting,” a 44-year-old carer from Copeland’s second most-populated town of Egremont tells me. Her partner, Shaun Grant, who works as a labourer, agrees. “You have to travel to Carlisle – it could take one hour 40 minutes; the road is unpredictable.” They will both vote Labour.

Ken, a Conservative voter, counters: “People will lose their lives over it – we need someone in the circle, who can influence the government, to change it. I think the government would reward us for voting Tory.”

Fog engulfs the jagged coastline and rolling hills of Copeland as the sun begins to set on Sunday evening. But for most voters and campaigners here, the dense grey horizon is far clearer than what the result will be after going to the polls on Thursday.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.