ATLANTIC CITY – Gov. Chris Christie was across the pond Monday on a foreign trip to London, dealing with a series of public relations problems. First there was report in The Bergen Record about how businesses awarded state tax breaks are paying for his travel. Then The New York Times published a piece detailing how the King of Jordan and GOP presidential kingmaker Sheldon Adelson helped to fund Christie’s trip to the Middle East in 2011. Add to that his controversial comments about whether kids should get vaccinated, and Christie made the news this week for all the wrong reasons.
The buzz about the governor did not get much more positive at a GOP event at the Borgata Casino in struggling Atlantic City, where the post-Christie era was well underway and about a dozen whispered conversations with party leaders, operatives and elected officials revealed a growing sense of discontent.
The event was intended to rally support for Republicans to take control of the Assembly this year, when all 80 seats are up for election. But the GOP was also there to check out the party’s next generation of potential governors — including Assemblyman Jon Bramnick and Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, the only two speakers who saw standing ovations.
Such warmth was not evident for the actual leader of the party — the governor. Christie delivered a taped message via video that was greeted with polite applause, while a party functionary seemed to have trouble getting audience members to wave free posters from Christie’s 2013 campaign.
In a word, Republicans said they’re disappointed. Christie had been viewed as a GOP savior in an overwhelmingly Democratic state when he was elected in 2009, but many now believe he has neither revolutionized government (property tax bills are increasing at a faster pace, to $8,100 on average) nor the state party (he regularly skips invitations to appear at county Republican meetings).
The list of gripes was extensive. Republicans from South Jersey told me they are angry about the alliances he has made with the Democratic powerbroker who controls that part of the state, George Norcross, and they are frustrated by the amount of attention (and money, via state aid and tax breaks) granted to Camden, the poorest and most dangerous city in the country. North Jersey Republicans, meanwhile, said that legislators stuck their necks out in unanimously passing tough reforms for the Port Authority, the agency involved in the Bridgegate scandal, only to see Christie veto the bill without warning.
Christie is not spending as much time on the business of politics and government, they charge, because he has been traveling so much laying the groundwork for a presidential campaign. And so that means gubernatorial nominations and appointments — for judges and other patronage jobs that grease the political apparatus of New Jersey — are being delayed. The widespread belief is that Christie simply isn’t in the state enough to review appointment recommendations from Republicans and hammer out the necessary deals with the Democrats who control the Legislature. And while the governor argues that he remains in contact with New Jersey via his iPhone, his fellow Garden State Republicans think that he is spending much of his time on the phone dialing for dollars for his new political action committee, created in advance of his expected presidential run.
That presidential run only came up once from the parade of speakers at Monday’s event. Morris County GOP Chairman John Sette said that Christie adviser Michael DuHaime “is going to make Chris Christie the next president of the United States with a lot of help from people in the room.” That comment drew muted applause.
Christie has raised oodles of money for the state party, his backers say. Thanks in part to that money the state party helped Tom MacArthur win a tight congressional race in South Jersey last year, and Donna Simon win a special election for an assembly seat in a swing district the year before. The party funds was directed for campaign mailers and sophisticated Get Out The Vote efforts.
But some of that money has gone to pay for Christie’s travels around the country, which has helped to build his own profile, not the party’s, while other funds have had to pay the party’s legal bills related to the Bridgegate affair. All of that means the last five years in office have been too much about him, they said. “A one-way street,” a Republican told me.
Well, of course. He is the governor — and a top-tier presidential candidate. When he headlined a fundraiser last year with Mitt Romney, the party pulled in $600,000 in one night. Christie’s backers say this is typical griping that comes in a governor’s second term. One long-time political hand noted that former Gov. Tom Kean experienced such pushback — and Kean is now a hero to the party. If Christie were to become GOP presidential nominee, a Christie supporter said, party operatives will knock themselves over to get back in the governor’s good graces.
And for sure, there was plenty of praise Monday for the governor, both in official comments to reporters and from the stage.
Bob Yudin, chairman of the Bergen County Republicans, said: “We’re all dedicated to Gov. Christie.”
Bramnick said of Christie: “You can’t find a better friend. Or find somebody more loyal.’’
But in the mean time, there’s some flirtations with Jeb Bush, who is probably Christie’s chief rival for the Republican presidential nomination. Last month, Larry Bathgate, a major New Jersey Republican fundraiser, hosted a dinner in New York for Bush. Among those at the dinner were State Sen. Tom Kean Jr., the son of the former governor, and State Sen. Joe Kyrillos, a close personal friend who had long been viewed as one of Christie’s allies in the Legislature. (A Christie supporter noted that Bathgate is just angry with the governor over a plan to build dunes that would block the view from his shore house.)
Republican State Sen. Michael Doherty last month said Christie had “failed to bring real, systemic change” to New Jersey, while Steve Lonegan, a former Christie rival whom the governor had raised money for when he unsuccessfully ran for U.S. Senate, said recently that Christie’s people had treated Republicans “like a bunch of cheap hookers that have been thrown to the curb.”
Neither Doherty nor Lonegan are major figures nationally, but they could present a problem for Christie. If grassroots Republican activists and movement conservatives in New Jersey loudly complain about Christie on social media, as some of them already have, that can get out to Republican voters in other states who may look to the opinions of Christie’s home state GOP. In fact, when I was in Iowa a couple of weeks ago with Christie, I met a woman who said she didn’t support him because she had read bad things about him on Facebook from a well-known conservative activist in New Jersey, Rick Shaftan.
Back in Atlantic City, a woman who had assembled Christie 2016 bumper stickers on a big posterboard refused to say whether she actually supported the governor for president. “We love our governor,” she kept saying. I pressed her about whether she wanted him to become president, but she told me to buzz off.