Trenton, N.J. — Gov. Chris Christie is finally and definitively out of the presidential race. Some think it was, given his long history of denials, a highly predictable “no.” But in behind-the-scenes talks with National Review Online, Christie aides, confidants, and donors said he was much closer to launching a candidacy than he let on. Here are five reasons why, at the eleventh hour, he decided to stay in the Garden State.
There was never enough of it. In private chats, Christie backers often spoke of Bill Clinton’s October 1991 campaign launch, but that was never a real model for the governor. He and his allies knew that with Mitt Romney and Rick Perry already on the ground in early primary states, time was of the essence — and they didn’t have it. As Christie mulled for weeks, his team was under instructions to sit on their hands, and to do nothing that sniffed of actual political activity. His campaign contributors were told the same. Instead, they watched, often with regret, as early states moved up their election dates. By early this week, when Christie briefly reconsidered, the clock didn’t make sense to his team. They certainly had media buzz, but that was all that was guaranteed — a big risk in a compressed period when staffers, operatives, and activist organization are crucial.
For weeks, we heard that Christie had billionaires ready to pour millions into a presidential campaign. I spoke with many of these millionaires and billionaires and this was the case, but it was never more than talk. One big-name GOP donor told me he was ready to form a “super” political-action committee, but he said Christie kept telling donors that he wasn’t in — even on his recent West Coast road trip. Christie knew if he flipped and jumped in, the money would come, but how much was an open question. He also knew that money alone was not enough. He’d need a team, and at a late date, making hires and raising and spending campaign assets would take up too much time — time he’d need to be on the trail.
At today’s meeting with reporters, Christie said the upcoming primary and electoral requirements were “not a factor” in his decision. But his confidants tell a different story. With Florida’s filing date approaching, and Iowa’s caucuses looming, the schedule had become too cramped. As Christie thought over a run, multiple states discussed moving up their primaries. Christie folks saw that and grimaced. If the calendar kept moving up, Christie’s chances could diminish, since his schedule would not permit him to build a large autumn effort. His team is full of former Rudy Giuliani strategists, and they know, more than most, the folly of betting that a Northeast Republican could make a successful, last-minute push in Florida, among other states.
At 49 years old, Christie is a young man, with many miles left on his political odometer. Elected in 2009, he has been a brusque but popular leader of a blue state, and reelection in 2013 is by no means out of the question. Advisers think he can bounce off reelection and be a top-tier contender in 2016 or 2020, depending on next year’s results. In other words, there is no rush, and the chatter of recent weeks only helps those future opportunities. Christie reiterated at his press conference that he has many “bold” projects coming up. His boosters think his continued brash but effective work in divided government will only raise his national profile. If he wins in 2013, he would have not only the personal appeal, but valuable, lengthy experience as a swing-state executive.
A History of Caution
Christie told reporters that he “did not feel right in my gut” that a run made sense, even though his family liked the idea and countless prominent Republicans were ready to join his ranks. His caution, aides say, was to be expected. He has a history of being courted, and those experiences informed his thinking this week. For example, in late 2004, GOP grandees asked him to enter the 2005 race for governor. He thought about it, since it was an open seat, but backed away by Thanksgiving of that year, choosing to remain a United States attorney. That caution paid off: In 2009, after bolstering his resume, he was elected governor. Christie recognized that waiting then, and now, made sense. Indeed, one source says, after losing a state assembly seat in 1995, and almost ending his political career, he is acutely aware of how quick decisions — based on what seems like an opening — can easily turn sour. At the time, Christie, a young Morris County freeholder, irked local Republicans by running for higher office early in his term. After losing that race, he then lost his county seat. Those bruises have faded, but even today, he fielded questions about whether that tumultuous time made him wary of overreaching. For all his tough talk, this is “a patient student of politics,” notes a top Jersey operative.
— Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review.