Remember when Chris Christie was going to be our next president?
Four years ago, donors begged Governor Christie of New Jersey to run. Then Bridgegate brought him low. On Tuesday, he announces his presidential campaign and has nowhere to go but up.
Washington — Oh how the mighty have fallen. If Chris Christie, governor of New Jersey, is at all reflective about the twists of his once-soaring political career, he might be muttering that biblical saying.
But after “Bridgegate,” the 2013 scandal that ensnared several top aides, and major problems with New Jersey’s finances – including nine credit downgrades – Governor Christie has been brought low both at home and nationally. He enters the 2016 presidential race Tuesday a long shot.
So why try at all?
“Remember the answer that some mountain climber gave when he was asked, ‘Why are you climbing Mount Everest?’ The answer was, ‘Because it’s there,’” says Larry Sabato, presidential scholar at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. “That’s what mountain climbers do; they try to get to the top of the highest mountain. And this is what politicians do; they try to get to the presidency.”
A shorter answer could be: Why not run? Even at just 4 percent in the average of major polls of GOP voters, Christie is only about 10 percentage points behind the frontrunner, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. Plus, it’s early. Anything could happen. Or at least that’s what long-shot candidates tell themselves.
Expectations are so low as to be nonexistent. So Christie has no place to go but up.
His slogan – "Telling it like it is" – plays on his bluntness. His game plan is to spend a lot of time in New Hampshire, whose primary is next February, the second nominating contest after Iowa. New Hampshire Republicans are more moderate, Northeastern, Christie-type voters, he’s wagering – or, at least, more moderate than the social conservatives who dominate the Iowa Republican caucuses. Christie’s polling at an average of 5.6 percent in New Hampshire, in sixth place, and about 10 percentage points behind Mr. Bush.
If Christie does well in New Hampshire, and some other early primaries, the positive buzz he used to enjoy could come back, supporters say.
“Once he gets that momentum, you’ll see the whole dynamic of the race change,” Dale Florio, a Republican lobbyist in New Jersey, tells Politico.
Maybe. His camp has put out estimates that he’ll raise $20 million to $30 million by the end of the year – a decent pile of money, but not much compared with other GOP contenders such as Bush, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas. But it’s good starter cash that would certainly grow exponentially if he were to catch on.
Or maybe Christie falls flat, his money runs out, and he drops out early, hoping the Republican nominee wins the election and nominates Christie for a Cabinet post. Christie is serving his second term as governor and is barred from running again.
Just four years ago, at the start of the 2012 presidential cycle, Christie was the dream candidate, the only Republican who could beat President Obama – at least in the eyes of some GOP donors. Surely, they thought, he would be a better nominee than Mitt Romney, who indeed went on to lose to Mr. Obama.
But Christie wouldn’t run, despite their entreaties. He was still new to the New Jersey governorship and expressed devotion to the job at hand. But the calls to get in persisted. By September 2011, he was delivering a televised address at the Ronald Reagan presidential library in California to convince the political universe he really, truly would not run. Less than a year later, he was the keynote speaker at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, a possible springboard to the 2016 nomination.
Now, Christie should be so burdened as to have donors begging him to take their money – or tuning in to watch him deliver a nationally televised address. He’ll be fortunate to make the first Republican debate on Aug. 6, in which Fox News is allowing only the top 10 candidates in major national polls to participate. For now, he just makes it.
With 20/20 hindsight, Christie might be kicking himself for not getting in in 2012, when he was a rising star. His brash, Jersey style captivated some voters. In New Hampshire, he brought charisma to the stump that Mr. Romney could only dream of, as this reporter witnessed at a town hall meeting in Exeter, N.H., in January 2012. Christie dispensed with a heckler with signature aplomb.
But had Christie run last time, it’s possible that the bluntness would have worn thin after a while. And it may not have played well in other parts of the country. Some voters – many voters? – don’t appreciate being told to “sit down and shut up,” as he did in one of many famous Christie moments. To some, such talk might be entertaining but it hardly seems presidential.
In retrospect, maybe President Christie was never meant to be. The nation will soon find out.