New Jersey governor Chris Christie has endorsed Republican front-runner Donald Trump.
Several Republican candidates have sought Christie’s endorsement since his exit from the race earlier this month: He fielded calls from Marco Rubio, John Kasich, and even Ted Cruz. But he has bided his time, even as dozens of so-called establishment politicians have flocked to Rubio. Until now.
At a joint appearance in Fort Worth, Texas, Christie praised Trump’s “strong, unequivocal leadership,” said the businessman is best-positioned to beat Hillary Clinton in November, and pledged to help him “in every way that I can.” It was a little more generous that he sounded on the stump in New Hampshire, when he told voters that if Trump were nominated, “We could wind up turning the White House over to Hillary Clinton for four more years.” That, he warned, would be like the eight years of the Obama administration, “except worse.”
Christie is the first high-profile politician to endorse Trump, a move that will come with major fanfare and that will undoubtedly trample on the buzz created by Marco Rubio’s performance in Thursday evening’s Republican debate. Indeed, Christie and Trump used their appearance to throw insults at the Florida senator, who has became perhaps the last man standing between Trump and the Republican nomination. Christie said Rubio was “wholly unprepared to be president of the United States.” Trump piled on: “Once a choker, always a choker,” he said. ”It never, ever changes.” Christie’s endorsement is, for him, a kick in the shins to Rubio, whom Christie hurt badly in the final Republican debate before the New Hampshire primary. The two have been at odds since Rubio’s super PAC aired a television ad that sent Christie’s poll numbers plummeting in New Hampshire. Christie also competed fiercely for Republican mega-donor Paul Singer’s endorsement and lost out to Rubio in November.
It is also a blow to his fellow governor, John Kasich, who remains in the races and faces a do-or-die moment on March 15 when his home state of Ohio goes to the polls.
The first indication of Christie’s leanings came on February 24, the day after the Nevada primary, when longtime Christie adviser Russ Schriefer penned an op-ed for TIME arguing that Donald Trump’s string of victories had made him the establishment candidate. Schriefer says his op-ed and Christie’s endorsement were entirely unrelated, though the governor saw his piece before it went to press. “I sent it to him after I wrote it,” Schriefer says.
Studying the exit polls from the South Carolina race, Schriefer says he reached a conclusion that moved him to write the piece: “This is no longer a niche candidacy, this is now the Republican party.” Contrary to the prevailing narrative, Trump had attracted voters beyond his disaffected, lower-income base in South Carolina.
“His win was much broader than that,” Schriefer says. “He won among Evangelicals, older voters. He won college-educated voters, he won less educated voters. Then, when Nevada came in, it only confirmed my hypothesis.”
Back in Fort Worth, Trump was lavishing Christie with praise. “This was an endorsement that really meant a lot,” he told reporters. “This is a man with an outstanding family.”
EDITOR’s NOTE: This post has been amended since its initial publication.