MANCHESTER, NH — Undeterred by low poll numbers, Gov. Chris Christie has a two-word strategy he thinks will send him to the White House: New Hampshire.
Christie believes he can muscle past a crowded field with just 20 to 25 percent of that state’s primary vote and use the victory to power through to the Republican nomination.
“I am not coming here for my health, brother,” Christie told a town hall meeting at a bar in Keene, NH, earlier this week. “It’s not just cause I like the weather, okay? It’s because I absolutely believe it and think I can win. I am not in it for the experience.”
Christie’s New Hampshire experience was set in motion just days after he won reelection in 2013. That’s when Matt Mowers, then a 24-year-old political operative who had worked for the governor’s office and on Christie’s gubernatorial campaigns, went north with Christie’s blessing to become the head of the New Hampshire Republican party. After building relationships with local political players, Mowers moved over to work on Christie’s political action committee in New Hampshire and then, once the presidential campaign officially began last month, to become the director of the New Hampshire operation.
In a sign of the state’s importance to Christie’s campaign, immediately after the governor announced his candidacy at his old New Jersey high school he flew to New Hampshire with his family and went right to a town hall meeting. Emerging from his SUV, the first thing Christie did was bro-hug Mowers, his man on the ground.
The New Hampshire town hall meetings and early-morning restaurant stops that Mowers sets up — and fills with supporters — are central to Christie’s strategy of meeting more people than any other candidate.
“The way you win up there is you come up here the most, you spend the most time, you meet people face-to-face,” Christie told reporters Tuesday. “And then when they decide in the last 10 days [of the campaign] — which is when most people in New Hampshire decide — they’re going to remember the time they saw you here at this place in July. There’s a guy inside who said, ‘I came to see in February, I came to see in you in April, and I came last night.’ You would think I got that guy. Right? He’s like: ‘I’m close.'”
The primary will be held February 9, 2016. Christie has spent 23 days in New Hampshire this year, more than any other candidate, and he’s held 15 town halls, often in bars. At a bar in Keene an overflow crowd stood outside on the sidewalk listening to Christie on a loudspeaker for nearly two hours.
And yet, a Monmouth University poll this week had Christie in 8th place among Republican candidates in New Hampshire. Christie later said the poll was tainted by liberal, anti-Christie bias.
But the poll showed Christie was the top second choice of Trump supporters, and indeed several New Hampshire voters said they liked both candidates.
One attendee at Christie’s town hall in Keene, Trina Fagan, said she favored Christie — but she was still shopping.
“Oh I’ll be shopping til the bitter end,” she said. Christie was the first candidate she met. “Nobody has really come to Keene.”
That’s what Christie is counting on — to be everywhere. And it’s Mowers’ job — along with his three-person campaign team here — to make that happen. At Audrey’s Café in Dublin, NH, this week, a voter invited Christie to the Cheshire County Fair.
“I don’t know,” Christie responded. “Talk to Mowers.”
Mowers normally operates behind the scenes, although he spoke publicly when he was called to testify before the New Jersey Legislature’s Bridgegate committee. Mowers was the first Christie representative to inquire about Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich’s endorsement for Christie’s reelection. Sokolich’s decision not to endorse allegedly led to the closures of lanes at the George Washington Bridge.
Once again Mowers is helping to secure endorsements for Christie — like Merimack County Sheriff Scott Hilliard, who became one of the first elected officials to back the governor.
“Matt twisted my arm for a long time,” Hilliard said after a town hall meeting in Newport, NH, on Tuesday. “But I told him I might be older than you, but I got the gun so I got the final say!”
Hilliard’s relationsip with Mowers from his time running the New Hampshire GOP helped ease the way toward the endorsement. He said he passes along names of potential supporters, and Christie and Mowers are diligent about following up.
“That’s what grassroots operations are all about,” the sheriff said. “And Matt Mowers knows the state. He worked here. He worked for the GOP. He doesn’t beat the GOP drum. He goes after the independents. He goes after the Democrats who are willing to reach out and support.”
Moments later, Christie could be seen sitting at a private table with a New Hampshire state senator whose support he hoped to win. Mowers, of course, had a seat at the table.