The unlikely emergence of Chris Christie proves once again that you can never tell who is going to take off in the public imagination. The New Jersey governor not only rocked on the 2010 campaign trail, he quickly became a regular on short lists of Republican presidential prospects.
A year ago, the new Republican governor to watch was the one who prevailed in the only other gubernatorial race of 2009, Bob McDonnell of Virginia. The even-tempered, perfectly coiffed McDonnell ran a textbook campaign
, won by 17 percentage points and was chosen to give the televised GOP response
to President Obama's State of the Union address.
To the north, in a different kind of campaign, Christie was demanding that Gov. Jon Corzine "man up and say I'm fat
" in response to Corzine ads that made unsubtle allusions to Christie's size. Toward the end, conservative columnist Paul Mulshine suggested Christie's campaign might be the worst-run
in state history and accused him of "trying to reinvent the flat tire."
A four-point victory transformed Christie's standing but not his style. Between battles with Democrats and their allies, he raised nearly $9 million this year for Republican candidates, according to political adviser Mike DuHaime (considerably more than McDonnell's $2.5 million). Throughout, the former federal prosecutor has maintained a trademark manner so blunt and combative that the Quinnipiac University Poll routinely asks New Jersey residents whether they consider him a leader or a bully. "Leader" has hovered at 50 percent
in recent months.
Both Christie and McDonnell laid impressive groundwork this year for their political futures, hitting the trail in 15 and 17 states, respectively. Their paths crossed in only six states: gubernatorial races in Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Mexico, California, Illinois and Maryland. Beyond that, their itineraries diverged, with Christie for the most part staying out of southern, border and conservative states.
The New Jersey governor campaigned in governor's races in Wisconsin, Iowa, Michigan, Connecticut, Minnesota and Oregon; Senate races in Connecticut, Delaware and Florida; and four House races in Pennsylvania. He made repeated trips for Rust Belt candidates, including three for Tom Corbett, now the governor-elect of Pennsylvania.
At one rally for Corbett, Christie happily described how New Jersey Democrats compared him to "Julius Caesar, Napoleon Bonaparte
, all those great leaders of the past," after he had dealt with a budget deficit by declaring a fiscal emergency, impounding money and issuing executive orders
. "I fixed it by myself," he said.
In California, a finger-pointing Christie faced down a hostile questioner
at a Meg Whitman event, talking over him loudly to tell him that "it's people who raise their voices and yell and scream like you that are dividing this country." The clip ended up making Christie famous across the political spectrum.
My first and only encounter with Christie came at the National Governors Association meeting in Boston last summer. Standing under the Massachusetts statehouse dome, talking with unfamiliar reporters who expected bipartisan pleasantries, he launched into a scorching attack on public employee unions. He accused them of refusing to share the pain of the recession.
A month later, New Jersey was in the news for losing $400 million in the competitive "Race to the Top" education grants from the federal government. The culprit appeared to be a clerical error (budget data for the wrong year) that cost the state three points and knocked it into 11th place. But Christie's frosty relations with labor soon emerged as another, perhaps larger factor in the loss.
Teacher-union support is worth far more than three points to federal evaluators and has been a hallmark of winning grant applications. It turned out Christie had at the last minute rejected an application that then-education commissioner Bret Schundler had worked out with the New Jersey Education Association. The budget glitch "would have been irrelevant" had the overall application been stronger, said NJEA spokesman Steve Baker.
Christie fired Schundler in August. In subpoenaed testimony under oath last month to a legislative committee, Schundler said the compromise plan gave Christie 90 percent of what he wanted and he could have pursued the rest in the legislature. But he said Christie insisted the compromises be dropped and the application be hastily rewritten because a talk radio host was saying he had "caved in to the union
A former Jersey City mayor and two-time candidate for governor, Schundler told me he was compelled to testify and his goal has not been to "take on" the governor. He even told me that he is not surprised at Christie's success on the national campaign trail. "He's struck chords which for [Republican] primary voters are attractive. He has shown willingness to make very aggressive cuts in spending growth," Schundler said.
DuHaime said Christie was in high demand in part because of political geography. "We talk an awful lot as a party about cutting spending and cutting taxes and living within our means, and he's proven you can do it in a blue state with a Democratic-controlled state legislature," DuHaime said. "He's doing a good job as governor in a place where people thought it might be difficult."
Baker, citing $820 million in education cuts that Christie is trying to impose, offered a different reason for Christie's success: "People across the country don't have to live with the consequences of the decisions that he's making." So far, however, Christie is holding his own. A new poll from Quinnipiac
finds that 52 percent approve of his handling of the state budget, versus 42 percent who disapprove.
The Race to the Top fiasco has not cramped the governor's penchant for bold moves and fighting words. In recent weeks he has killed a new commuter rail tunnel to Manhattan, saying it's too expensive (commuters and invest-in-infrastructure types were stricken, but 53 percent
in New Jersey support Christie's decision).
He also told teen-agers in Trenton
that if their teachers "cared about learning," they would not be "in Atlantic City having a party." It was a reference to the education association's annual convention
, held Nov. 4-5, which this year featured 300 seminars and workshops, classroom technology demonstrations and 700 exhibitors. "The governor has once again spoken passionately without the facts," NJEA vice president Wendell Steinhauer told the local Fox affiliate
In Virginia, controversial headlines usually involve not McDonnell but Ken Cuccinelli, a conservative firebrand
who succeeded McDonnell as state attorney general. McDonnell -- conservative but no firebrand -- is usually in the role of smoothing feathers after Cuccinelli has ruffled them.
The governor did have one major controversy of his own, after he failed to mention slavery in a proclamation of Confederate History Month in April. McDonnell later apologized for what he called his "major and unacceptable omission." He said next year's proclamation will be called "Civil War in Virginia
" and written to remember all Virginians. The conciliatory gesture and language (he had made, he said, "an error of haste and not of heart") were widely praised.
Out on the campaign trail, in addition to states he had in common with Christie, McDonnell helped out in governor's races in Nevada, Texas, Arkansas, Kansas, Vermont and Massachusetts; Senate races in Missouri, Washington, Arizona and California; and nine House races in Virginia. Since he is limited to one term by law, he will have to find something else to do
Sadly for their fans, neither of the 2009 governors will likely be running for president in 2012. McDonnell has said he is "fully committed
" to serving his four years. Christie said last weekend on NBC's "Meet the Press" that he is "absolutely" not running. Some are skeptical
about the repeated denials, but DuHaime offered three more this week in one sentence. "He's not running, he's not running, he's not running," he told me.
Christie and McDonnell will each have nearly three years in office when it comes time for the GOP nominee to pick a vice president -- a year more than former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin had under her belt when John McCain tapped her. The odds are probably better for McDonnell than Christie. "Can you see me as somebody's vice president?" Christie asked on "Meet the Press." "I would feel bad for that poor man or woman."
Nor does he plan to change. Said the man nicknamed Gov. Wrecking Ball, "I am who I am." It's an open question how that will play outside the northeast and Midwest, and over time. Lucky for him, he's 48 and not term-limited. The 2013 gubernatorial election will be a test of how well he wears.