Did Christie’s ‘Bromance’ With Obama Deal A Fatal Blow To His Presidential Hopes?

Stewart Lawrence | Stewart J. Lawrence is a Washington, D.C.-based public policy analyst who writes frequently on immigration and Latino affairs. He is also founder and managing director of Puentes & Associates, Inc., a bilingual survey research and communications firm.

Conservatives haven’t taken kindly to GOP candidates that sing the praises of Barack Obama. Witness the fates of former Florida governor Charlie Christ and former Utah governor Jon Huntsman. Each made bids for conservative electoral support after cozying up to Obama – and each was savaged in the conservative media and saw their political fortunes crushed.

Now it may be New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s turn. By all appearances, he’s still planning to run for the presidency. But many conservatives still haven’t forgiven his obsequious appeals to Obama for federal disaster support after Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Some with a conspiratorial mindset even suspect that he deliberately sabotaged Romney’s chances of defeating Obama – partly, to preserve his own future prospects.

Christie was enormously popular among New Jersey voters – including most of the state’s Republicans — for having set aside his ideological differences with the president to put his state’s recovery first. Probably any sitting governor faced with a crisis of Sandy’s proportions would have done the same. Christie scarcely had a choice.

But pictures of a weary Christie touring with Obama and being comforted by the president made many conservatives – including Rush Limbaugh and Daily Caller columnist Matt Lewis — cringe. It wasn’t just Christie’s willingness to deal with the president; it was the way he seemed to beg for Obama’s support, and then played the role of lapdog at nearly every media stop.

Christie’s team seems to be in denial about the lasting damage Sandy caused to their candidate’s White House prospects. In November 2013, Christie won a landslide re-election against a popular female opponent in which he garnered 51 percent of the Latino vote, unprecedented for a Republican in a blue state like New Jersey. His supporters claimed that the victory demonstrated how competitive Christie might be against a woman in a national presidential contest.

But conservatives nationally appear to have drawn the opposite conclusion. In 2013, many of his top donors started withdrawing their support. The Wall Street Journal began chiding Christie and casting doubt on his conservative credentials. The American Conservative Union pointedly disinvited Christie from its annual CPAC confab. And a mid-2013 Pew survey among Republicans confirmed his sagging fortunes: Christie’s “unfavorability” rating among Tea Party activists (35 percent) and among Republican voters generally (30 percent) far surpassed that of other major GOP figures.

In some ways, the Sandy experience seems to have sharpened conservatives’ perception that Christie is more comfortable reaching across the aisle to work with Democrats than he is mobilizing the GOP base or promoting a conservative agenda. And at a time when the base is moving in a more confrontational direction, especially since the 2014 mid-terms, Christie strikes many conservatives as far closer in spirit to Jeb Bush than to Ted Cruz.

That’s allowed Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, another sitting state executive with an impeccable record of standing up to entrenched public sector unions and slashing state budget deficits, to claim the political ground that was once Christie’s alone.

Consider recent polls among GOP voters. Christie has enormous name recognition and by all rights should be a top-tier candidate, as he was in 2012. But, in fact, he hasn’t even made it to the second tier. He’s still languishing in the third tier, alongside of Ben Carson and Mike Huckabee, at roughly 6-7 percent. In key early states like Iowa and New Hampshire, Christie trails virtually the entire field. New Hampshire is a state where Christie’s glad-handing charismatic style should endear him to voters but Walker’s already opened up a commanding lead.

Then there are Christie’s “negatives,” which are the highest of any GOP candidate. In a recent NBC-Wall Street Journal poll, well over half of GOP voters (56 percent) said they could not support Christie, compared to just 32 percent (less than a third) that said they could. In fact, Christie was the only GOP candidate in the poll with a net negative favorability rating. (Even controversial Sen. Ted Cruz retained a net positive rating, as did Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal).

Christie’s also fallen into a deep fundraising hole. According to the New York Times, influential New York- and New Jersey-based “bundlers” are bypassing Christie and lining up behind Walker. Other donors formerly loyal to Christie have decided to support Bush. One of the biggest defections came last February, when the owner of the New York Jets, formerly a huge Christie backer, announced that he was no longer supporting the governor. It was a stinging rebuke.

Is Christie finished? Not by a long shot, his advisers say. They dismiss the disaffection of GOP funders and criticism from the base as part of the ebb and flow of presidential campaign politics. Christie’s begun laying out policy proposals, including a just-announced plan for entitlement reform. It’s a popular theme with conservatives and one that Christie can easily champion.

But the images of a once-combative conservative standard-bearer linked arm in arm with his Democratic nemesis have left a deep and lingering impression that Christie’s team has no real strategy for. Unless Christie can reverse that impression – and quickly – his prospects in 2016 seem slim indeed.

Tags : chris christie cpac scott walker stewart lawrence ted cruz wall street journal
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