After being denied a speaking slot last year at the largest annual gathering of conservatives, New Jersey Republican Gov. Chris Christie has accepted an invitation to speak at the 2014 Conservative Political Action Conference next month, Yahoo News has learned.
“We are very excited to announce that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie will speak at CPAC 2014," American Conservative Union Chairman Al Cardenas told Yahoo News. "At this year's CPAC — and through our theme 'ACU's Golden Anniversary: Getting It Right for 50 Years' — we will celebrate how conservatism has shaped our past and look to the future with excitement. This will be the year that conservatives begin pulling the nation back from the brink of Barack Obama's disaster with a movement that inspires, unites and discovers new solutions to our current challenges.”
An invitation to speak at the conference, held near Washington each spring, is traditionally a prime opportunity for aspiring Republican presidential candidates to make an impression on some of the party’s most active supporters, as well as the national media.
Last year, the ACU, which organizes the three-day confab, made the controversial decision not to invite the rising GOP star. The group withheld its invitation as punishment for what some in the movement viewed as Christie’s insufficiently conservative record the year prior, Cardenas said. Christie lost favor with some Republicans when he gushed over President Barack Obama’s response to Superstorm Sandy just weeks before the November presidential election. His sharp criticism of House Republican leaders who delayed recovery funding after the storm also created tension at the time.
The ACU’s snub was particularly jarring because the group had warmly welcomed Christie, one of the most popular national Republicans, as a speaker at a regional CPAC gathering in Chicago in June 2012.
But while Christie may be back in the good graces of the ACU, at home, he’s struggling to escape a cloud of scandal.
Last month, emails surfaced between top Christie aides revealing that his administration had intentionally manufactured a costly and unnecessary traffic crisis on the George Washington Bridge — the busiest bridge in the world — as an act of apparently political retribution against a Democratic mayor who refused to endorse Christie during his re-election campaign. The move delayed thousands of commuters, emergency vehicles attempting to respond to 911 calls and school children traveling to the first day of school. The delays unleashed a firestorm of criticism against the governor.
Christie fired an aide, deputy chief of staff Bridget Anne Kelly, and David Wildstein, a Port Authority appointee, resigned in the wake of the scandal. During a nearly two-hour press conference following the release of the emails, Christie denied having knowledge of the plan that brought traffic entering the bridge from the city of Fort Lee to a standstill.
In an interview with Yahoo News after he publicly addressed the scandal, Christie said he was still gathering information about the incident that has wreaked havoc on his administration and cast doubts about his presidential prospects in 2016.
“I’m going to learn from this,” Christie told Yahoo News’ Matt Bai. “I can’t tell you yet what it is I’m going to learn. But I am intent on learning from this.”
The bridge scandal, however, continues to haunt Christie and threatens to severely tarnish his presidential ambitions.
On Friday, the New York Times released a letter from an attorney representing Wildstein, the Port Authority appointee, claiming “evidence exists” that the governor knew about the lane closures earlier than he originally said he did. Wildstein has not yet released the evidence cited in the letter but contends that it contradicts Christie’s insistence that he first learned of the lane closure effort “after it was over.”
Christie’s administration responded to Wildstein’s accusation by denying wrongdoing. Over the weekend, Politico reported that Christie’s staff had circulated a memo attempting to undermine Wildstein’s credibility and downplay his attorney’s promise of “evidence.” On Sunday, the Associated Press reported that another Christie aide, Christina Genovese Renna, who reported to Kelly, had resigned.
Now Christie’s challenge is to rebuild trust and credibility among the party faithful, as polls taken since the revelation of the bridge scandal show plummeting confidence in the governor.
Christie’s speech to CPAC next month will offer an opportunity to address conservative activists who may be wary about his judgment, in light of the bridge scandal, and skeptical about his moderate record.
Christie will join a lineup of policymakers seen as possible candidates for the presidency in 2016, including Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan. Each year, the conference hosts an informal presidential straw poll; in 2013, Christie mustered just 7 percent of those who participated.
The conference will take place in National Harbor, Md., on March 6-8.