The announcement earlier this month that former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush is ramping up his political machine in preparation for a prospective 2016 Republican presidential nomination run was enough to furrow brows in the camp of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, another GOP presidential aspirant.
Then days later, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, indicated that he is considering another run for the White House in 2016, furthering muddying the waters in an already murky week for Christie’s supporters.
Christie’s State of the State address clearly demonstrated that his drive to run in 2016 is unabated as he appealed to a national audience. One question Team Christie must resolve is this: if Romney enters the race, is Christie hurt, or helped?
According to Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, Romney’s potential entry into the race could provide Christie with both good and bad news.
“The fact that Romney is a potential candidate has put a hold on some of Jeb Bush’s fundraising potential. Bush has put a stake in the ground, aiming to raise to $100 million in the next couple of months. But some of the people who he hopes to raise it from are now keeping their power dry, which helps Christie in the short term as he has the opportunity to try to convince donors that he’s the guy,” Murray said. “The problem is that if Romney does actually decide to run, then the battle for the money is between Romney and Bush, and Christie is the odd man out. There would only be space for two guys, and Romney and Bush are it.”
Christie’s assertion that he is the more populist GOP candidate compared to the relatively patrician Bush and Romney might not matter at this stage, according to Murray.
“Right now, we’re in the invisible primary, which only involves a few hundred people – big donation bundlers and party leadership,” Murray said. “The question is does [Christie’s populism] appeal to them more than some of the concerns they have about his negatives and the potential for skeletons in his closet that could come out during the campaign. They might feel that Bush or Romney is the safer bet. [Christie’s] populism a little over a year ago was one of his main selling points to that crowd. But look at his job approval rating after Bridgegate. He’s not as popular as he was after his  reelection. That’s what he was trying to recapture with his State of the State speech this week – the idea that he’s still that guy.”
Matthew Hale, associate professor of political science and public affairs at Seton Hall University, believes that Romney’s possible entry into the 2016 GOP candidate pool gives Christie a boost.
“Mitt Romney presents Gov. Christie with a very clear line of attack – he’s already lost, twice,” said Hale, referring to Romney’s failed 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns. “Gov. Christie can say that the Republicans need to try something new, and I’m it. That idea also includes Bush in the same set. [Christie] can say that he can reach out to populist folks that these two rich elitists, the real establishment guys, can’t. He can run more of an outsider campaign if both Romney and Bush are in. I think it’s a good thing for Christie with some voters, including some on the Tea Party far right side of the party. Whether it’s a good thing with Republican money, I’m not 100 percent sure.”
Brigid Harrison, professor of political science and law at Montclair State University, also feels that Romney in the race means advantage Christie.
“With the specter of Romney, Bush and Christie in the race, there is a lower proportion of support that’s required to move forward in the process. A head-to-head battle between Bush and Christie, that’s the governor’s worst-case scenario,” Harrison said. “What Romney entering the race does is that it opens up the field and makes the nomination less certain and makes donors more inclined to hedge their bets, which works to Christie’s advantage.”
Then again, Harrison referred to a former Democratic presidential candidate to note a personality factor that could give big GOP donors pause about ultimately committing to Christie.
“We don’t need to look that far back when [former Vermont governor and 2004 Democratic presidential candidate] Howard Dean went ballistic in the aftermath of the Iowa caucuses. That was career-ending,” Harrison said. “The fact that Bush and Romney are considered serious statesmen, without Gov. Christie’s off-the-cuff comments and breaches of etiquette over the years, probably works to their advantage in a presidential contest, particularly in places where how people behave is much more conservative.”
Ben Dworkin, professor of political science and director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University, points to how Romney running could undermine certain regional factors that so far favor Christie.
“Mitt Romney made his fortune on Wall Street. These are people who live, quite literally, in Chris Christie’s backyard. The Christie campaign would presume that these people are going to be in their camp, but someone like Romney can come in and take some of that money away,” Dworkin said. “In the Republican primaries, Romney can sweep up some of the Northeastern states where Christie would hope to win.”
Rick Wilson, a Florida-based Republican consultant who has advised presidential campaigns, also thinks that Romney’s entry into the GOP nomination contest augurs ill for Christie’s 2016 chances, despite what he termed as the “great job” Christie did during the last election cycle as the Republican Governors Association (RGA) chair.
“The donor class, Wall Street, Palm Beach money are looking for three things: the guy who beats [potential Democratic presidential candidate] Hillary Clinton, presidential temperament and affect, and somebody who they feel comfortable putting their money and their networks behind,” Wilson said. “A year ago, when Chris Christie was the establishment, Acela Republican, a lot of people in that world looked at the field and felt that he was a natural center of gravity to those people at that point. Then some of them felt that maybe his bluster and tough talk was too much. When Jeb Bush’s name came into the mix, a lot of those people flooded the zone, including some of the people Christie absolutely thought was in his pocket. Then it got much more complicated when Mitt Romney dropped the bomb.
“Mitt Romney is a very known quantity to [the GOP donor class]. No, he didn’t come with the prize the last two times, but they know him,” Wilson added. “They have no fear of Mitt Romney blowing himself up midway through the campaign. Between Bush and Romney, it becomes a much steeper hill for Chris Christie to climb.”