Why Chris Christie has to run for president to stay afloat in New Jersey

On Tuesday, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie will stand before the high school in his hometown of Livingston, N.J., to announce his run for the 2016 Republican nomination for president.

It’s a curious choice of backdrop for the event, given that the one thing many people know about Christie’s high school years is that he was a classmate of David Wildstein, the former political editor whom Christie appointed to a top post at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and whom he later publicly disowned during the first tumultuous weeks of the Bridgegate scandal. Wildstein is now cooperating with federal prosecutors who have charged two Christie aides, one of them a former deputy chief of staff to the governor, with masterminding the now-infamous 2013 traffic jam at the George Washington Bridge.

That’s not a story Christie or his handlers want to see re-visited today, but it’s not one they will be able to avoid.

The larger problem for the governor is that many of the other iconic backdrops he could have chosen for this announcement were just as likely to trigger unpleasant associations. The Jersey shore? Think of the fumbled Hurricane Sandy recovery effort. Giants Stadium? Think of those junkets with Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones. Atlantic City? Fuggedaboutit.

Even a different public school would have been tricky, since the governor recently pulled New Jersey out of Common Core standards he had previously supported. Not to mention, Christie became a nationally known Republican in part by dressing down public school teachers in viral YouTube videos. One of the teachers in Livingston High School called today’s choice of venue “a slap in the face,” and the Livingston schools superintendent has made it clear in interviews that he won’t be in attendance.

When Christie and his advisors began imagining this day five years ago, they never foresaw that the governor would be running for president as the second-term governor of a state where — at the moment — he doesn’t have many success stories to tell. Bogged down by sagging approval numbers in home state polls which seem to plumb new lows every six to eight weeks, Christie is announcing his run when more than two in three New Jersey voters tell pollsters that they don’t think he has the temperament to lead the country; in one of those polls, even a majority of Republicans say Christie is the wrong person for the job and that he’s put his own political career ahead of his state’s well being. Things are so dicey at home that throughout the weekend Christie had to spend time asking New Jersey Republican state legislators – several of whom have publicly defected to Team Jeb – to stick with him as he finally launches his campaign.

Following this morning’s event, Christie is off to New Hampshire, where he has an evening event scheduled, followed by several days of campaign activities for the rest of the week. Christie has spent more time in New Hampshire than any top-tier candidate. He’s placed top aides in the state during the last year, and his team is banking on a never-before-tried strategy of sweeping northeastern GOP primaries to carry him to the nomination.

Running this campaign is, to put it mildly, a very long shot. Christie possesses extraordinary natural political skills in person that may help him win over New Hampshire voters, but he isn’t likely to be financially competitive compared to other candidates in the race.

Yet at this point, running for president — even with these odds — may be Christie’s best option. The home state policy baggage Christie brings into this race — looming pension liabilities, a series of credit downgrades, transportation funding shortages — cannot be fixed by a governor with Christie’s poll numbers. Democrats, who worked with New York legislators to jointly pass an ambitious package of reforms targeting the Port Authority, tell me they felt betrayed when Christie and his New York counterpart, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D), collaborated to veto the measures. Both governors promised an intense focus on substituting the legislation with their own plans. To date, nothing has changed. Moreover, several top Democratic legislators tell me they haven’t had a face-to-face meeting with the governor in months. Instead, they or their aides talk to aides in the governor’s office, but rarely with the governor, who has spent almost half of his second term since the start of 2014 doing campaigning out-of-state, himself.

That absenteeism has not only eroded the governor’s relationship with Democrats; it’s also weakened his support among Republicans. Judgeships are vacant. Christie’s town hall meetings — events held in local legislators’ districts where the governor could let his political skills shine — have all but disappeared from his schedule in 2015. Going into the year, Christie’s stated top policy priority in New Jersey was to fix the state’s under-funded public pension system. For months, secret negotiations had been going on between leaders of the New Jersey Education Association, the state’s largest public schoolteacher union, and members of a commission appointed by the governor to collaboratively reach a deal. But Christie blindsided both parties in February when he rushed to microphones to declare victory, claiming a bargain had been reached. The union backed away from the table and the governor’s own commissioners were left fumbling to explain his missteps. Republicans in the state house, many of whom didn’t trust Christie to see the issue through to the end, felt as if the episode confirmed their impression of the governor as someone who had already lost interest in the policymaking aspects of his job.

The central problem for Christie at this point in his second term, which is not even halfway over, is that the only thing keeping him politically afloat at home is the prospect of a presidential campaign. Even though he faces long odds, the first primary votes won’t be cast until early 2016. In the meantime, the barriers to entry are low enough that there’s no reason for Christie not to get in the race — if not to become president, then at least to hang on as governor.

Brian Phillips Murphy @Burrite is a professor of history at Baruch College who writes about the intersection of money and politics.

(Cover tile photo: Brendan McDermid/Reuters)