Gov. Chris Christie is banking his presidential run on New Hampshire, which holds the first primary in the nation. Last week a poll showed him jumping to 4th place from 9th among Republicans in the field, and he is seeing somewhat larger crowds attend his town hall meetings in the state. Why the sudden success in New Hampshire?
The Viral Video
In October, The Huffington Post posted a video on Facebook of Christie giving a stump speech in which he tells the story of his friend who died of a drug overdose. He argues for treatment instead of incarceration for those who suffer from the disease of illness, and interweaves a story about his mother, too. The video was posted to Facebook and has now gotten more than 8 million views — the first viral video hit of the 2016 campaign.
In the wake of the terrorism attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, with Republican voters saying national security is their most important concern, Christie’s tough-guy talk and his experience as a U.S. Attorney who once prosecuted terrorism cases has given New Hampshire voters a reason to give him a second look. One of his new lines is: “Our world war is happening right now.” That approach earned him an endorsement from the biggest newspaper in New Hampshire, the Union Leader.
And a Secret Weapon: Matt Mowers
Every few days, Christie rolls out a new endorsement from elected officials and community leaders in New Hampshire. These announcements provide a hook for media events where Christie touts the growing support and gets on the local news. Those who endorse him can also help with the ground game come election time. “They know how to organize, they know how to work, and they’re going to help me get out the vote,” Christie said last week. “Not only that but they’re also going to get a lot of other people to give me a second look, which is a good thing.”
Christie is landing these endorsements in part because he works at it — calling, texting and dining with those targeted for support. “I think it’s a way that keeps me close in states like New Hampshire and Iowa, where you can only be there a certain amount of time, continuing to stay in front of people is a good thing,” he said.
But texts alone don’t do the trick. New Hampshire Republicans say Christie’s endorsement success is in large part due to a long-time Christie aide named Matt Mowers, who is running the Christie campaign in the state. In 2013, weeks after finishing work on Christie’s reelection campaign, Mowers landed a new job with help from Christie’s advisers — executive director of the New Hampshire Republican party. That gave Team Christie a foothold in the all-important presidential primary state long before any other potential candidate. In his position Mowers attended local Republican club meetings and state GOP dinners, where he collected contacts and earned many Republicans’ trust — like that of a political power broker from the seacoast region, Renee Plummer.
Last week, Plummer endorsed Christie. “Relationships matter,” Plummer said when asked about Mowers.
The endorsement strategy has a familiar New Jersey ring to it. For his reelection in 2013, Christie wanted Democrats and unions to endorse him in order to score a big victory that could set him up as a top-tier presidential candidate. Mowers was one of those responsible for endorsements. In between work on Christie’s campaigns in 2009 and 2013, Mowers was an official in the governor’s Intergovernmental Affairs unit, where he drew criticism from Democrats for seeming to solicit endorsements for Christie’s reelection on the public’s dime. Mowers, in fact, was in charge of getting the endorsement of the mayor of Fort Lee, N.J., which is adjacent to the George Washington Bridge. After the mayor said no, other Christie appointees allegedly closed the lanes to the bridge in order to retaliate, causing days of traffic in Fort Lee. That led to the Bridgegate scandal.
By then Mowers was in New Hampshire, running the state party and meeting the likes of Jim McConaha, treasurer of the Concord Republican Committee. The treasurer was taken with the young operative from New Jersey. Mowers even got McConaha and his wife tickets to a sold-out Republican event earlier this year.
Gift-giving is another page from Christie’s playbook from his reelection campaign, when Mowers gave American flags from Ground Zero to mayors targeted for endorsements.
As Christie moved toward running, Mowers “encouraged us to come and listen to Gov. Christie and we felt like we really need to do this,” McConaha said. “And so we went to a town hall in Pembroke. That’s the first time we had seen [Christie] at a town hall meeting. And he was just terrific.”
The Jersey-style charm offensive worked. McConaha and his wife are now volunteering for Christie’s campaign.