WASHINGTON (AP) -- He wasn't on the ballot Tuesday, but New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie emerged as one of the big winners of the midterm elections, establishing himself as one of his party's most visible leaders and building momentum that could propel a presidential run.

Gov. Chris Christie (Bryan Thomas, Getty Images)

Christie had spent months traveling the country, raising money and boosting candidates in his role as chairman of the Republican Governors Association. Regardless of the election outcome, the job has helped him build a national profile and make inroads with activists and fundraisers.

But Tuesday's better-than-expected results seemed to surprise even RGA officials, who had been minimizing expectations in the days before the race. Republican incumbents were able to stave off fierce challengers in several states that had been seen as vulnerable, winning re-election in Florida, Wisconsin, and Michigan.

Perhaps more significantly, Republicans were able to seize a handful of Northeastern governors' mansions, traditionally Democratic strongholds, including Maryland, Massachusetts and Illinois.

"It was an exceptional performance," said Republican strategist Steve Schmidt, who helped lead Sen. John McCain's 2008 presidential campaign.

Though Christie-backed candidates failed in Pennsylvania and New Hampshire, the wins could help boost a Christie argument that Republicans need to nominate a candidate who can expand the party's reach.

"I love that map this morning. It looks absolutely fabulous," Christie said Wednesday on "Fox and Friends" during a morning television victory lap. Throughout the media blitz, Christie was careful to humbly give his candidates' credit, but conceded it was "a great day for a guy who's a blue state governor."

On a conference call with reporters Wednesday morning, RGA Executive Director Phil Cox said Christie had been "instrumental" to the wins.

"I think he deserves immense amount of credit for the leadership he provided," said Cox, pointing to the $106 million raised during Christie's tenure, as well as his intense travel schedule, which spanned 37 states, including 19 states in the race's final five-day stretch.

"Governor Christie has absolutely raised the bar for RGA chairmen," he said.

Cox also emphasized Christie's behind-the-scenes role, saying the New Jersey Republican was constantly on the phone with candidates, offering encouragement and advice, as well as consulting on strategy.

Among the smart calls, he said, was a last-minute decision to go into $3.5 million in debt to invest, in part, an extra $1.5 million on advertising to boost Maryland's Larry Hogan, who wound up defeating Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown in the heavily Democratic state.

"I want to thank Governor Christie for bringing the cavalry from New Jersey," Hogan said during his victory speech.

But as the focus now turns to 2016, Christie will likely also face new criticism from opponents who'd chosen to hold back because they wanted a cut of the RGA's money.

"There are now may Republicans who will begin to focus a negative lens on him," Schmidt said. "It's going to be a new dynamic for Chris Christie."

Christie has said he will make a decision early next year about whether to run.