Don’t look for Chris Christie to make up with conservatives anytime soon. He doesn’t need them — yet.
“I think he will be concerned about that the day after the election in November,” says a well connected Republican familiar with New Jersey. Right now, Christie’s focus is on holding his seat this fall — and becoming the first GOP governor since Tom Kean in 1985 to win 50 percent or more of the votes cast. “When he cracks 50 percent — and he will — that is a significant talking point for him, and then he can attend to the conservative base after the election,” the source predicts.
Another source close to Christie says that the governor is currently reaping the benefits of his public tension with conservatives. The intense media coverage over the Conservative Political Action Committee’s decision not to invite Christie to speak, for instance, plays well in blue New Jersey. “It gives him a good narrative for his reelection campaign. It’s done wonders for him. The mainstream media loves him. A lot of Democrats love him. A lot of Democratic donors love him,” says the source.
And ultimately, Christie believes that reelection in a blue state, along with his successful conservative policy initiatives and his willingness to buck liberal constituencies such as teachers’ unions, will win conservatives back. “The fact that some conservative elites are annoyed with him and conservative media types are annoyed with him, I think he believes that’s repairable,” the source adds.
“He’s conservative but practical, mindful of the fact that he leads a state dominated by Democratic majorities in the legislature and in order to accomplish what is necessary he needs to find some common ground,” says Joe Kyrillos, a New Jersey state senator. That mindset is evident in Christie’s first TV spot of the campaign season, in which the narrator touts Christie’s belief that “compromise isn’t a dirty word.”
Mike DuHaime, a top Christie adviser, argues that the governor doesn’t face a problem with conservatives at all, saying “his numbers among Republicans and conservatives are in the 90s in terms of approval.”
His support among conservative political networks remains strong, too. “There are a handful of people who are upset,” he adds, “but Mitt Romney’s invited him to go speak at a gathering of his donors coming up in the fall. He’s got an enormous amount of donors, thousands of [GOP] donors from around the country who have contributed to his campaign here in New Jersey.”
Former New Jersey governor Tom Kean says his friends who are New Jersey conservative leaders remain “very supportive” of Christie. “I think people make much more out of it than there really is because there are a handful of people who don’t agree that he should have put his state first when there was a hurricane last year,” DuHaime adds. “Those handful of critics are not going to dictate how the governor reacts.”
Christie’s handling of Sandy — which infuriated many conservatives, who regarded his willingness to appear with Obama the week before the presidential election as a betrayal — may have won him reelection this year. “He was doing well before Sandy, and then at Sandy, people in the state just feel he had their backs,” Kean says. “No matter what went on in Washington, no matter what went on anyplace else, he had our backs in the state when we were hit by the worst storm in our history.”
His popularity skyrocketed by 19 points after Sandy, according to Rutgers-Eagleton poll. Now, six months later, Christie remains remarkably popular for a Republican governor in a blue state, with 63 percent approving of the job he’s doing, according to Monmouth University/Asbury Park Press Poll. “I have a liberal Democratic friend who said to me, ‘I don’t agree with him on anything. But he has our back and I’m voting for him,’” Kean relates.
If Christie wins in November by a large margin, he may also be able to boost the number of Republicans in the state legislature. “A strong run by Christie, even though the redistricting is not in our favor, could make a difference there,” Kean predicts. “He’s looking to help the Republican party statewide. He’s not just thinking of himself here.” Kyrillos, too, is cautiously optimistic. “There’s no question that the Republicans drew the short end of the stick, so to speak, in the last redistricting process,” but if Christie has a strong win, “you’re going to have some significant coattails in districts all around the state.”
“It is a very difficult legislative map that we face,” says DuHaime, “but obviously, the governor’s numbers right now are strong and that should help people down-ticket.”
Christie’s actions since Sandy, such as pushing for new gun-control measures in New Jersey and blasting House Republicans for objecting to the level of spending in the Sandy relief bill, have only exacerbated the tension with conservatives. In February, Rush Limbaugh blasted Christie, saying “He’s not nearly the strident conservative that people thought he was, and he never really was conservative.”
“He loves Obama, he’s thanked Obama, he’s walked the beach with Obama,” Limbaugh continued. Christie has “a great future as a moderate,” he said.
Chris Stigall, a conservative Philadelphia-area talk-show host, used to be a huge Christie fan, even urging him to enter the presidential primary in 2011. But Christie’s actions during Hurricane Sandy alienated him. It wasn’t Christie’s appearance with President Obama that changed Stigall’s perception of the bombastic governor next door, but the governor’s dismissal of Republicans’ concerns about the imminent presidential election.
On Fox and Friends, Christie remarked bluntly, “If you think right now I give a damn about presidential politics then you don’t know me.” Stigall says, “I do believe him when he says he doesn’t give a damn.” What bothered Stigall most wasn’t that Christie made appearances with Obama, but that “he was so obstinate about telling those of us that cared about the outcome of the election that he didn’t give a damn about it anymore.”
“His words, not mine,” Stigall adds. “That it was about his state and the hurricane and he didn’t want to talk about Romney or the election. That’s what’s hard for me to get over. ”
Now he feels very differently about a Christie run than he did in 2011.
“If he became the nominee, much like when Mitt Romney became the nominee, I’d support him,” Stigall says, “but he’d have to work awfully hard for it.”
After November, Christie may begin to do just that.
— Katrina Trinko is an NRO reporter.