Christie, Establishment Darling

by Robert Costa
The New Jersey governor cements the support of Republican power brokers.

Governor Chris Christie’s darkest moment, at least in the eyes of some members of the Republican establishment, came on a chilly Sunday night in early November of last year, just days before the presidential election. What Christie and his team did that evening, in a series of terse e-mails and calls with the pleading Romney camp, remains murky. On Capitol Hill, insiders still treat the episode like the Zapruder film, analyzing it and trying to discern, from limited context, what exactly happened.

But what didn’t happen is indisputable: Christie didn’t attend Mitt Romney’s rally at Shady Brook Farm in Lower Makefield, Pa., an affluent township in the Philadelphia suburbs. Christie’s aides insist he was busy working on Hurricane Sandy relief, but to this day many of Romney’s donors and former advisers suspect the governor coolly abandoned them at the eleventh hour. They note that Trenton, New Jersey’s state capital, was only a 15-minute drive away, a short hop over the Calhoun Street Bridge, and that Christie made no effort. Two days later, Romney would lose deeply purple Pennsylvania and the election.

Ever since, Christie’s relationship with the Republican political class has been uneasy — he’s been seen not as a traitor, necessarily, but as a too-clever-by-half operator who didn’t do all he could for the nominee. The image of Christie happily hugging President Obama on the tarmac — and being AWOL for Romney, right as he was slipping in the polls — was seared into the consciousness of the conservative elite.

Christie’s inner circle has taken the complaints seriously, fearing their implications ahead of the 2016 presidential election. For the past nine months, they have quietly labored behind the scenes to woo the party’s skeptical power brokers. Their maneuvers have included huddles with Republican moneymen, off-the-record powwows with conservative journalists, and late-night conversations with past backers.

Officially, such sessions with national Republicans and figures of the right are considered part of Christie’s reelection campaign, but his playbook is filled with the broader, tacit push for his political rehabilitation. According to Christie sources, the nuanced relationship-building and donor outreach is being led by Bill Palatucci, Christie’s longtime strategist and friend, while Mike DuHaime, Christie’s other (and younger) senior political adviser, is more focused on the mechanics behind Christie’s gubernatorial race and day-to-day politics.

Ken Langone, the billionaire cofounder of Home Depot, is another important player in this informal project. Two years ago, as Washington Post reporter Dan Balz chronicled in his book Collision 2012, Langone gathered a group of more than 50 prominent Christie supporters from Wall Street and elsewhere at a tony restaurant in New York City, where they urged Christie to jump into the Republican presidential primary. Since January, Langone has been staying in touch with those financiers, planning fundraisers and keeping them enthusiastic about Christie’s future. In the meantime, more than $9 million has poured into Christie’s coffers.

Later this month, Christie will be in the Hamptons, chatting up Republican donors at the home of Clifford Sobel, a former ambassador in the George W. Bush administration. Former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, erstwhile darling of the Big Apple’s GOP set, will host the event. Palatucci, who is close with the Bush family, having led the Garden State campaigns for both George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush, is reportedly taking care to connect the vaunted Bush network, which has been friendly to Christie in the past, with his Jersey boss.

“The group is there, believe me, and it’s growing by the day, maybe by a factor of 50 times more than what it was in 2011,” Langone tells me. “He’s getting traction with people because people want to win. After 2012, it dawned on a lot of us that we need to have a better candidate, somebody who can connect, and Christie is the person who can do that.” Langone doesn’t make much of criticism of Christie’s handling of Hurricane Sandy: “I know some people say [Christie] got too close to [Obama], but it wasn’t a time for politics and pandering. It was a crisis! I saw it firsthand at NYU’s medical center, and people who get that aren’t unhappy with him.”

Christie has worked diligently to repair his ties to Romney World, which remains influential in national Republican politics. In late March, he had a private dinner with Romney in Boston, and a few days later Romney praised Christie during his speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference. Christie then attended Romney’s donor retreat in June, where his aides linked up with Romney’s former finance director, Spencer Zwick, and Romney’s major donors, and courted them at receptions. Last month, he spent time in Las Vegas with casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, one of Romney’s big-dollar supporters during the general election. And for his reelection campaign, he has hired Russ Schriefer, a former Romney adviser and consulting whiz, to produce his campaign ads.

New Jersey state senator Joe Kyrillos, who chaired Christie’s 2009 campaign and Romney’s state campaign, traveled with Christie to Park City, Utah, this summer for the Romney confab. “Going in, we knew that there might be some lingering frustration with some Romney folks, but he was swarmed as he made his way through the lobby,” Kyrillos recalls. “He was a rock star. At one point, he was stuck off to the side of the room; the crowd waiting in line to take iPhone photos was that thick.”

“His early moves have been good,” says Steve Schmidt, a veteran Republican operative who managed the McCain-Palin presidential campaign. “He’s now looking at a decisive reelection victory this year in a blue state, and then he becomes chairman of the Republican Governors Association next year, which will enable him to build all of his relationships to an even greater extent than he has done already. There will always be commentary about [the Sandy controversy], but I don’t think a photograph from five years ago will be an issue in a primary that’s driven, as almost all Republican primaries have been, by electability over ideology.”

Former secretary of state Henry Kissinger, who encouraged Christie to run last year, agrees. In an interview, he tells me Christie remains a top-tier candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, owing to his willingness to wade into foreign policy and his ability to broaden the Republican coalition. “We’re friendly, and I think extremely highly of him, and he knows I’d be delighted if he became a national candidate,” he says. “Conservatives should recognize his long-term potential.” Christie’s work with Obama during the storm, he acknowledges, “might not have been the high point of his political career, but I was never angry about seeing him do what he needed to do for his state and his reelection.”

The crescendo of Christie’s reemergence as the establishment’s frontrunner came last week in Boston, where, less than a year after the Romney-related recriminations, the members of the Republican National Committee embraced him, for the most part, during their summer meeting. He cast himself as a national leader capable of leading the party out of its political wilderness. He seemed eager to snuff the post-election friction, once and for all, with a charismatic and upbeat performance.

“I’m in this business to win,” Christie told the RNC attendees, to approving cheers. “For our ideas to matter, we have to win, because if we don’t win, we don’t govern, and if we don’t govern, all we do is shout into the wind.” It wasn’t an ideological overture but a pugnacious and pragmatic message directed to a group that’s tired of losing. And they loved it, and Christie, too, since he increasingly looks like the only center-right governor and national star looking hard at a 2016 campaign. Former Florida governor Jeb Bush is widely believed to be leaning against it, and Senators Ted Cruz and Rand Paul, though popular with tea-party activists, are privately viewed with wariness by the Republican donor class.

Former New Jersey governor Tom Kean, who has mentored Christie since he was a young man, tells me he’s unsurprised by Christie’s comeback among top Republicans. Christie, he explains, is confident in his appeal but also keenly aware of how he can sometimes irritate allies within his own party. Instead of fretting, he says, Christie has engaged with his critics in his own way, spending time with them and reminding them about why he was once their favorite pol.

“He’s a charmer,” Kean says, chuckling. “Once people spend time with him, they like him. That’s important, and all too rare in politics. I’ve spoken with Ken Langone and others, and the sense is that everybody wants to find a way to win and they think Chris is the best candidate out there. But it’s also about people just liking Chris. He’s been a leader of our party for a few years now, and that won’t be changing anytime soon.”

— Robert Costa is National Review’s Washington editor.