POSTED: 01:30 a.m. HST, Aug 18, 2013
LAST UPDATED: 01:54 a.m. HST, Aug 18, 2013
New York » He has hired specialists in microtargeting who worked for the presidential campaigns of Mitt Romney and George W. Bush. He has built a sprawling, 50-state fundraising network, including major Republican players like Harold Simmons, the billionaire backer of a Karl Rove-led super PAC that spent $105 million in the 2012 race.
And he is pouring resources into an effort to attract blacks, Hispanics and women to prove that he is a new kind of Republican.
As Gov. Chris Christie heads for what is expected to be an easy re-election, he is also quietly building a sophisticated political operation that could become the basis for a national campaign. His advisers, while saying the governor is focused on New Jersey, are aiming to run up a huge margin against his Democratic opponent and position Christie as a formidable figure among Republicans ahead of the next presidential primary.
At the Republican National Committee summer meeting in Boston this past week, Christie and his aides repeatedly made the case that his re-election effort in heavily Democratic New Jersey this fall would offer a model for Republicans in the years ahead. And despite their claims to be focused only on 2013, his aides have also signaled to Republicans that the governor, if re-elected as expected, plans to begin visiting other states immediately after November.
Christie's appearance at the twice-annual gathering of Republican state officials was significant. In addition to courting the conservative-leaning party activists, he met privately with two Republicans who could be helpful in a presidential race: Spencer Zwick, Romney's well-connected chief fundraiser, and Scott P. Brown, the former Republican senator from Massachusetts who is considering a Senate run in New Hampshire, which holds the first presidential primary. Already, Christie is assembling the kind of national fundraising network that would be essential to a presidential campaign; some 35 percent of the $9 million he has raised for his re-election is from out of state, and he has held fundraisers around the country, both in donor-rich enclaves like Palm Beach, Fla., and McLean, Va., and in Minneapolis, Pittsburgh, Chicago and throughout California.
Thanks to his prominence, and the fact that New Jersey is one of only two states with contests for governor this year, Christie has been able to cultivate big donors around the country.
"Under the guise of his re-election, he's able to meet these folks and say, 'I need your help,'" Rove said. The governor has tapped some boldface contributors like the Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. But more important for his future ambitions are the checks he has gathered from loyal Republican givers like Simmons, the deep-pocketed Dallas political patron, and lesser-known local power players like Dax R. Swatek, an Alabama lobbyist.
"I wrote him a check because, first, I think, as a Republican in New Jersey doing what he's been able to do is pretty damn impressive," said Swatek, who is close to many of his state's leading Republicans. "Secondly, looking at it long-term, the way the presidential map is, it is going to be very difficult for Republicans to win without going into some states that are purple and blue. To me, the guy can do it."
Not all of Christie's donors this year can be counted on to support him if he runs for president in 2016. But winning the backing of people like Swatek, who can raise money from a wide variety of sources, helps the governor reach potential presidential donors in other state capitals and business communities across the country.
Mike DuHaime, Christie's chief strategist, has also reached out to Mercer Reynolds, a Cincinnati executive who is one of the Republican Party's top contributors and was Bush's finance chair in 2000.
Earlier this month, Christie held a fundraiser at a Las Vegas hotel owned by the casino magnate Sheldon Adelson. Adelson and his wife, two of the biggest contributors to Republicans in 2012, were listed as co-hosts and each gave Christie the maximum contribution of $3,800.
Of course, the governor has a long way to go to prove to Republicans nationally that he can be the party standard-bearer, and some conservative activists are still smarting over his embrace of President Barack Obama in the days after Hurricane Sandy.
And New Jersey voters may resent what they see as his exploiting state issues to appeal to the conservative wing of the national party. The governor recently vetoed $7.5 million in family planning spending and Friday vetoed three gun-control measures. Barbara Buono, his opponent in the governor's race, frequently says he "would rather be campaigning in the cornfields of Iowa." According to an analysis by Democrats, since August 2012, Christie was outside of New Jersey for all or part of 91 days, or roughly 24 percent of the time. Christie emphasized that much of that out-of-state travel was for nonpolitical trips.
Senior Republicans who are familiar with Christie's strategy say it is most closely modeled after Bush's bid in 1998 for re-election as governor of Texas. The parallels are clear. Bush was considered a shoo-in for re-election to the governor's office, but he and Rove became determined to win over Hispanic and black voters to demonstrate the governor's broad appeal to a national audience. Bush won that race, with 68 percent of the vote, which included more than a third of the Hispanic vote, offering him a powerful credential when he ran for president two years later as "a different kind of Republican."
This summer, Christie has established a bilingual campaign office in Paterson, N.J., and spent $275,000 on a Spanish-language TV ad. He has also announced a Hispanics for Christie coalition and is now running even among Hispanic voters against Buono, according to a Quinnipiac University poll released 10 days ago.
"He's going to emphasize first trying to win a big re-election with a diverse coalition behind him," Rove said.
Despite his lead, Christie is spending expansively to enhance his targeting of voters this year. While his core team is filled with fixtures of presidential politics - including DuHaime, the ad man Russell J. Schriefer, the communications director Maria Comella and the campaign chairman, William J. Palatucci - he has brought aboard a new Republican firm, Deep Root Analytics.
The group includes strategists from Bush's 2004 campaign and the consultants who ran Romney's data effort last year, and is helping Christie direct his advertising more precisely by determining what voters are watching on TV, and, from that, deciding what ads to air and when. (Obama's campaign used the same technology in 2012.)
"The unspoken element in the room is that this could potentially be a test of what works and what doesn't" for a presidential contest, said a Republican with knowledge of the inner workings of the campaign who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid antagonizing Christie's circle.
The timing gives Christie distinct advantages: If he prevails in November, he will be handed a big national platform - the chairmanship of the Republican Governors Association. The position will give him a reason, and ample time, to travel the country, meet with activists and candidates, and raise unlimited money for the association, freed from federal and state regulations that limit him as governor from seeking contributions from those that do business with the state. Early primary states, including Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, are holding governors' races next year so Christie will surely visit. And he will ultimately get to play the role of political Santa Claus inside the Republican Party, distributing millions in campaign cash to grateful governors and would-be governors.
Even if Christie is well-positioned, however, skepticism toward him within the Republican base is still real. And, despite the warm reception he received in Boston, some resistance was apparent.
"I just really had a little bit of a problem with him embracing Obama," explained Paul Reynolds, the national Republican committeeman from Alabama, after Christie spoke. "I've got to get over that."
The broader challenge for Christie regarding party activists is that he is not seen as sufficiently tough on a president the Republican base loathes, and is too quick to throw an elbow at other Republicans, as he did with Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky on national security issues last month.
William Kristol, the editor of the conservative Weekly Standard who recently met privately with Christie over pizza, said the governor must avoid being seen as the Republican who likes to beat up on his own party.
"The party hates that and they will not forgive it," Kristol said. "A Republican who simply comes from a different part of the country, has a few differences on issues but respects the actual Republican primary voter worldview - that's a different story. That's the line Christie needs to walk. He doesn't have to be a red state Republican, but he needs to respect red state Republicans."