Chris Christie has long courted the New Jersey electorate and the state’s Republican establishment with a willingness to revel in conflict and contradiction. The Republican who unsuccessfully ran for Assembly in 1995 on a pro-choice, anti-assault rifle platform and bullied his way to a gubernatorial win in 2009 has always known the value of keeping his convictions limber in a state with an entrenched Democratic majority.
But with his endorsement of Donald Trump, policy could fall by the wayside altogether as Christie submits to the billionaire’s long shadow.
Facing calls for his resignation from New Jersey’s often conservative Gannett papers and reactions from within his own caucus that have been mixed to say the least, Christie’s downright Lynchian appearance at Trump’s Super Tuesday speech could be the beginning of a long decline for the governor.
“I think nationally, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him become persona non grata,” said Montclair University’s Brigid Harrison of the all-in pre-Super Tuesday bet on Trump. “Given the kind of tremors that are being felt throughout the Republican party nationally at the prospect of a Trump nomination, I think that really hurts his chances of angling for a position in any other administration.
“Christie made his name on a personality,” she continued. “Focus groups had indicated that bombast and being larger than life were qualities that resonated with the electorate. But I think watching him over the years what we’ve seen is that he’s been more measured than Donald Trump.”
That combination of centrist positions on social issues and a brash partisan chauvinism was a hallmark of Christie’s rise and reelection.
Standing in the corner with his eyes darting from face to face in the crowd as Trump delivered his victory speech in Palm Beach, FL last night, it was clear that Christie’s days as a headliner are over — even in the unlikely event that Trump pulls out a win as the nominee after alienating those groups whose votes matter the most.
To a growing chorus of Christie critics, the governor has moored himself to a candidate who has become the standard-bearer for xenophobic pandering in this bid to stay relevant on the national stage. Many moderate, swing district Republicans in New Jersey see Trump as the cartoonish opposite of where they expected the party to go after Mitt Romney’s 2012 loss. Now there’s palpable fear of a chilling effect among blacks, latinos and women.
“President Trump, which I don’t believe is possible, would be an unmitigated disaster and would set the party back decades,” said Mike Murphy Wednesday, head of Jeb Bush’s super PAC. “It’s like a computer designed him to lose elections for us. Who does he offend? College-educated white women and Latinos, the groups we need to win.”
Between approval ratings below thirty percent at home and widespread pessimism from the Republican establishment on Trump’s chances of beating Hillary Clinton, Christie’s expectation of a long-term payoff could backfire considerably. Though he shares Trump’s ability to bank on personality, he has an actual record as an incumbent and the albatross of the Bridgegate investigation still hangs around his neck.
Christie has shied away from public appearances and questions from the press since the Bridgegate story broke in 2013. The fire he has drawn because of the scandal itself and his long absences from the state will haunt him whether Trump wins or loses, said Farleigh Dickinson’s Krista Jenkins. Jenkins has conducted extensive polling on Christie’s popularity at home.
“In the press there’s been more scrutiny of the foundation of his persona,” Jenkins said. “Where he came from, what his policy positions have been. I don’t know whether this is good or bad but I think the evaluation of Christie is much more grounded than what we have of Trump.
“The numbers have been low for a long time,” she added of his approval rating in the state. “I think you can certainly look at the numbers and say they broadly correspond with when he really became an absentee governor in becoming head of the Republican Governor’s Association, and transitioning to his [presidential] campaign.”
At the press conference that played no small part in the Gannett papers’ decision to call for a resignation or a recall, Christie shot down “off-topic” questions one by one with all the charm of a hometown substitute teacher. The old joy in confrontation that helped him build his coalition in New Jersey was nowhere to be found.
In his disregard for party cohesion and contempt for the press, Christie may have simply jumped the gun, if not the shark. Trump has brought the ‘personal brand,’ that effusive mixture of market value and marketing savvy, to the presidential primaries to great effect and outdone the governor as a character candidate. Christie’s stunt endorsement is a strange outgrowth of the brand and the path to victory he cultivated in 2009, and of his new reluctance to perform, his critics groan.
Christie either started on that path too late, or too soon.