Why Chris Christie’s Troubles With the Base Won’t Hurt His Presidential Prospects

Elahe Izadi

When New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie addressed the conservative confab CPAC in 2012, he was greeted with a standing ovation, as he spoke about taking on unions and reducing the size of his state’s government. “The most powerful thing on our side is this: We're right and they're wrong,” he said, to wild applause.

What a difference a year makes.

But while a series of high-profile breaks with the base have riled up certain conservatives, leading Republicans think he’s still in strong shape as a 2016 presidential contender.

Despite his vocal calls for federal relief for Sandy aid and expanding Medicaid in his state, Grover Norquist’s antitax organization is heaping on the praise. “[Americans for Tax Reform] has had nothing but good things to say about Gov. Christie’s fiscal policies and reforms,” says Patrick Gleason, the group’s New Jersey director, pointing to Christie’s efforts to take on teacher’s unions and cut spending.

“To the critics, I say, ‘Give me a break.’ If conservatives are going to criticize him for doing what’s right for his state, then we’re on our way to becoming a minority party,” Home Depot founder and GOP donor Ken Langone told National Review.

As a Republican governor from a blue state who has sky-high approval ratings, Christie has long been a unique Republican figure, able to win support from both the conservative grassroots and establishment elements of the party. But then came his kind words for President Obama’s handling of superstorm Sandy on the eve of the 2012 election and his criticism toward congressional Republicans for blocking a $60 billion relief aid package. His latest move, expanding Medicaid in the state, has left some conservatives fuming.

American Conservative Union Chairman Al Cardenas cited Christie’s support for Sandy relief and the Medicaid expansion “at a time they can’t afford it” as the main reasons why Christie didn’t get invited to CPAC this year. “CPAC is like the all-star game for professional athletes; you get invited when you have had an outstanding year,” Cardenas said. “Hopefully he will have another all-star year in the future, at which time we will be happy to extend an invitation. This is a conservative conference, not a Republican Party event.”

Christie seems all too aware of the possible conservative backlash. He said Tuesday that he’ll “pull the plug” on the Medicaid expansion should the federal government not make good on its funding promises. He made the case that expanding "Obamacare" in this way will save New Jersey taxpayers money. “I am no fan of the Affordable Care Act. I think it is wrong for New Jersey and for America. I fought against it and believe, in the long run, it will not achieve what it promises,” he said in his annual budget address Tuesday.

Christie’s allies said it will be difficult to predict just how much the issue of Medicaid expansion will resonate, if he mounts a presidential campaign in 2016. And Christie’s move may not be that unusual by then; already seven other Republican governors, including conservative Florida Gov. Rick Scott and Ohio Gov. John Kasich, reversed their positions on Medicaid expansion.

“What this signals is that Christie is not necessarily trying to approach [Medicaid expansion] from a political standpoint, because he is going to get some criticism from conservatives,” says John Brabender, who served as a senior adviser Rick Santorum’s presidential campaign.

As for the CPAC snub, Brabender said, “I don’t think Chris Christie ever considered himself sort of one of the leaders of the conservative movement, quite frankly, so I don’t find this particularly shocking.”

Christie has been in sync with the conservative base on other pivotal issues. He avoided answering whether climate change caused Sandy by calling it an “esoteric question” that maybe he’ll have time to ponder “after I get done with rebuilding the state and getting people back in their homes.”

National Republican committeeman for New Jersey Bill Palatucci, a Christie ally, declined to comment on the CPAC snub, but rejects the premise that Christie has been rebuffed by conservative elements of the party. He points to the governor’s high approval rating and record of cutting taxes and dramatically reducing the size of the state government.

“I’ve been all over the country with the governor and his reception with conservatives, with others, has been very, very positive,” Palatucci said. “It’s an ongoing process. When folks look at the larger picture and accomplishments, they’ll find an executive who’s got real accomplishments to point to.”

Christie political strategist Mike DuHaime, who also declined to comment on CPAC, points to polling showing Christie’s strong support among state Republicans. A February Quinnipiac University poll shows 93 percent of New Jersey Republicans support his reelection.

“Anybody who tries to pretend that there’s some sort of issue is not backed up by any fact,” DuHaime said.

Indeed, Christie’s record has riled up liberals much more than the conservative base. Democrats have tried to draw attention to Christie’s stances on issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage. EMILY’s List endorsed his 2013 gubernatorial opponent, Barbara Buono, and called Christie “aggressively antiwoman.”

Democratic Assemblywoman Bonnie Watson Coleman said Christie is “walking that fine line between right wing, ultra-conservative, neo-cons, and his state. Sometimes, he manages that walk.”

Indeed, speaking at CPAC would have done more harm than good as Christie looks to winning over Democrats and independents for his first reelection campaign.

“Fundamentally, what people are pointing to as the problem is what’s fundamentally wrong with the far right of the conservative movement anyway. They’ve sort of forgotten to realize that brand of politics is not working. It has no traction and no success,” said Lisa Camooso Miller, past Republican National Committee communications director and New Jersey Republican state committee political director. “I suspect the approval ratings for the people who disapprove of [Christie] are quite a bit lower than his. He’s governing. He’s doing the job he was asked to do.”