Chris Christie: King of GOP governors, not 2016
By: James Hohmann
November 21, 2013 04:59 PM EST
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Chris Christie was crowned king of Republican governors on Thursday. But as much as they admire the ballyhooed New Jersey chief, Christie’s gubernatorial brethren aren’t ready to coronate him as the GOP’s 2016 standard-bearer.
In one breath, they praised his 22-point reelection in Democratic New Jersey earlier this month. In the next, governors — in one interview after another — warned against overlooking other state leaders who also harbor presidential ambitions.
The fact is that most governors see themselves as presidential timber. And Christie, who took the helm of the Republican Governors Association Thursday at the group’s annual meeting here, realizes he must tread carefully to ease concerns that he has not always been a team player.
Behind the scenes, in a series of conversations at the swanky Phoenician Resort over the past two days, sources said Christie has sought to reassure fellow governors that this won’t just be The Christie Show.
Taking over the committee gives Christie an enviable platform to travel the country collecting chits and bulking up his donor network. He will oversee more than $100 million in spending across 36 governor’s races in 2014.
But a level of risk comes with this newfound power base. Mitt Romney took heat in 2006 for using the RGA to boost his own political fortunes. And the tea party wave of 2010 means that Republicans must defend 22 incumbent governors next year — about half of whom lead states carried by Barack Obama. He will inevitably bear some of the blame if the GOP loses control of several state capitols in the midterms.
Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad said if the party’s gubernatorial hopefuls fare well in 2014, it would only enhance Christie’s standing for 2016. But “if it looks like [the RGA chairmanship] is being used for personal [gain], as opposed to helping other governors, that’s not good.”
After huddling here with Christie, Branstad said he left satisfied that the New Jerseyan has “the right attitude” about the job. Christie campaigned for Branstad in 2010 and — unsurprisingly — would love to return to the Hawkeye State to help out next year.
“He won’t be the only one,” said Branstad, stressing that it is “premature” to handicap the Iowa caucuses. The Iowa governor went on to offer high praise for Wisconsin’s Scott Walker, Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal and Texas’s Rick Perry.
“All of them could potentially be strong candidates,” Branstad said.
Coincidentally, next year brings governor’s races in each the first five states on the 2016 nominating calendar: Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Florida and Nevada.
Christie, 51, insisted that he’s not even thinking about 2016; reelecting Republicans, he said, is “going to be my sole focus over the course of the next 11 months.”
But he has left no doubt that he has every intention of running for president. One of his political advisers from New Jersey, Matt Mowers, is heading to New Hampshire to become executive director of the state Republican Party.
The hoopla and incessant 2016 talk surrounding Christie this month have been the source of subtle, and at times overt, tension, among some of his fellow GOP governors and potential rivals.
Days after Christie’s reelection, Texas Gov. Rick Perry questioned Christie’s conservative bona fides. “Is a conservative in New Jersey a conservative in the rest of the country?” Perry said on ABC’s “This Week.” “We’ll have that discussion at the appropriate time.”
Asked to elaborate on what he meant, Perry told POLITICO during an interview here: “I guess what I intimated was that 2016 will take care of itself in due time. And to spend a lot of time trying to talk about a horse race, when the fillies have just been born, it may be a little premature to be talking about winning the Kentucky Derby.”
Perry, considering another run after his stumbles in 2011, said he has a “good” relationship with Christie and the two also talked Wednesday.
“Any time you spend trying to look past 2014 is an opportunity you wasted to get your work done for 2014,” said Perry.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who sought the GOP nomination in 2000 and may also try again next time, is much closer with Christie. He even called him “a big teddy bear.”
“People like him, and he has one other thing going for him: It’s called celebrity,” Kasich told reporters. “In case you haven’t noticed, that’s a big darn deal in America today. So he will draw crowds, and he will be effective at raising money.”
But Kasich balked when asked if Christie should be described as the GOP front-runner and needled the press for so obsessively covering him.
“This is 2013,” he said. “I don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow, let alone what’s going to happen in 2016 … Things have a way of twisting and turning, and it’s a long way out.”
Outgoing RGA Chairman and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who is creating a new policy-focused 501(c)(4) designed “to win the war of ideas,” dismissed a reporter’s question about whether Christie is being anointed by the party.
“I think Chris is going to do a great job,” Jindal, who will remain vice chair of the governors group, said at a press conference. “We made that selection last year. We’ll enter next year with significant cash on hand.”
Jindal ducked when asked if Christie would make a good president.
“I know everybody in this room wants to do a story about 2016,” he said. “The way you win is you win the next election, not the next-next election.”
Christie was less diplomatic in August when he took an unmistakable shot at Jindal during the Republican National Committee’s summer meeting. At the RNC’s previous meeting, in January, Jindal had said the GOP needs to stop being “the stupid party.”
“I’m not going to be one of these people who’s going to come and call our party stupid,” Christie said, not using Jindal’s name. “There’s nothing wrong with our party and its principles and its core.”
Jindal took his own veiled jab at Christie a few weeks ago. A day after Christie told CBS it would be “ill-advised” for “guys like me” to comment on the Obama administration’s negotiations with Iran, Jindal issued a statement celebrating reports that the talks had stalled.
Some conservative governors privately believe Christie will be eager to campaign for them because tying himself to their own reforms could help bolster his own conservative bona fides.
North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple said Christie is great and “probably would have been chairman last year if he hadn’t had a race to run.” But he also said it’s not right to label Christie the early front-runner.
“No, way too early for that,” said Dalrymple. “Governors like governors. That’s a pretty safe statement, you bet. But there’s a long ways to go, obviously. I don’t know who’s really even going for it so far.”
Indiana Gov. Mike Pence said Christie reminds him of his old mentor, Jack Kemp.
“My respect for Chris Christie is boundless,” said Pence. “He’s a strong leader and a good man.”
But Pence is not making any 2016 commitments.
Asked if he might run himself, the freshman governor, who has at times been mentioned as a potential national candidate, offered a well-practiced response: “I haven’t spent one second thinking about anything other than the job that the people of Indiana hired me to do.”