As the 2016 presidential campaign enters a season of pre-release screenings, and White House hopefuls are beginning to preview their on-the-stump stories and vie for buzz and all-important campaign cash, perhaps no other aspiring nominee is better prepared for this moment than Gov. Chris Christie (R) of New Jersey.
And now that early-polling favorite Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican nominee, last week announced he would not mount another run, Governor Christie and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush have begun an earnest scramble to woo his considerable network of GOP donors – and become the candidate to claim the most broad-based appeal.
No candidate has made an official announcement, but so far, Mr. Bush appears to have become the pre-screening favorite, leading most polls and attracting many of the establishment donors loyal to Mr. Romney. The moderate former Florida governor has both the name recognition and, of course, the presidential pedigree to make a money-raising statement early.
But Christie, with a seasoned money-raising team himself, shattered fundraising records as head of the Republican Governors Association (RGA) last year, bringing in more than $100 million while crisscrossing the country and tapping into a nationwide network of GOP donors. Republican gubernatorial candidates cleaned up under his watch, too, even winning blue-state strongholds like Illinois and Maryland.
“I think he’s built up a fair amount of political capital,” says Jeanne Zaino, professor of political science at Iona College in New Rochelle, N.Y. “Over $100 million – that’s a big showing, and you can look at key states, and he’s certainly been right there, going to all these inaugurations – and we’ve seen Christie very active, trying to ratchet things up with his PAC in the last few days.”
But it’s the political capital gleaned through his relentless campaigning for others last year, many observers say, that could help Christie counter Bush’s early edge. The New Jersey governor attended more than 170 events while traveling to 37 states as the RGA’s chairman, building the kind of grass-roots goodwill so essential in the state-by-state grind of the primary season.
“People owe him favors,” says Matthew Hale, professor of political science and public affairs at Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J. “He showed up with RGA checks for last year’s elections, and so the people that he helped are certainly in a position to return the favor.”
“And it’s not just with raising funds,” Professor Hale continues. “These are state-level politicians and donors, so they’re also connected to local field operations. Not only do you need money; you need people to knock on doors and make phone calls, and you need that ground game in the primaries. And I think that Christie’s work with the RGA is really going to help him there as well.”
Christie’s unofficial campaign has been simmering for more than a year, ever since he won a landslide second term in a state dominated by Democrats – an accomplishment he’s been trumpeting to Republican voters as he points out the party’s electoral map problem.
But unlike Bush so far, Christie has actively courted the conservative wing, traveling to the Iowa Freedom Summit last week to appeal to mostly skeptical conservatives.
“I understand why Bush would have stayed away from Iowa and the Freedom Summit,” says Professor Zaino. “But you can’t pull a Rudy Giuliani and expect you can just just skip some of these important places,” she says, referring to the former New York mayor’s decision not to mount a campaign in the nation’s first presidential caucus.
“I mean, you’ve got to make a show of it, and as difficult as it’s got to be for Christie to go to Iowa and try to make a mark, he’s been faithfully going.”
Indeed, the New Jersey governor has gone to Iowa 11 times so far, and he’s planning another trip later this month, as well as swings through New Hampshire, Illinois, and California in the next few weeks.
While Christie’s relentless grass-roots networking and travel schedule continue, observers point out that the master of retail politics, too, is no slouch when it comes to wooing the wealthy.
“I think Governor Christie is quite capable of talking to people with a lot of money and impressing them,” says Hale. “Very often we look at Chris Christie and we look at his YouTube moments of yelling and screaming, but he can be an incredibly personable person when he sits across from people with money.”
“That being said, I don’t get the sense that it’s necessarily in his DNA like it may be with Jeb Bush, who’s incredibly smooth and articulate,” Hale continues. “Those are Jeb’s people, and Christie has some convincing to do, and though I think he can do it, he doesn’t come from that patrician line.”