If Gov. Chris Christie is going to win the Republican nomination for president, he’s going to have to do it the hard way. Unpopular at home as the state economy has sputtered, Christie also faces fund-raising challenges and a leery national GOP.
Yet Christie, a second-term Republican, made the case in a long-anticipated 2016 presidential announcement yesterday that the last 5½ years he’s spent in the State House have prepared him well, and that he’s now ready to serve as the nation’s next leader.
He said during a 30-minute speech held inside a crowded and steamy gymnasium at his alma mater, Livingston High School, that his work guiding the state out of the last recession and his handling of the ongoing recovery from Superstorm Sandy proved his leadership abilities. And he also said he figured out during his time as governor when to compromise with Democrats and when to hold firm against special interests.
Most of all, he said, he’s learned that leadership means telling people the truth and not just what they want to hear.
“In the end everybody, leadership matters,” Christie said to applause. “I mean what I say and I say what I mean, and that’s what America needs right now.”
“We are going to tell it like it is today so that we can create a greater opportunity for everyone tomorrow,” Christie said moments later. “The truth will set us free, everybody.”
For Christie, the announcement speech was an opportunity to set a tone for his campaign and to lay out a broad vision for the country’s future. That will be crucial, political analysts say, because he has no New Jersey economic miracle or other noteworthy item of substance to promote as a governor now running for national office.
To his supporters, the presidential campaign announcement represented the reemergence of one of the most skilled politicians the state has seen in recent generations — and a demonstration of how Christie might still pull it off.
“He’s ready to lead America,” said U.S. Rep. Leonard Lance (R-Hunterdon) as music still blared in the gymnasium following Christie’s speech. “He will speak the truth as he sees it.”
“I think that what is important is that people around the country see what we’ve seen for the last six years,” said state Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick (R-Union). “People want authenticity.”
But for the governor’s critics – throngs of people protested outside the event, including many public workers who are still upset with Christie for going back on a promise to better fund the state pension system – the announcement offered an opportunity to criticize his record in New Jersey and call for him to step down.
Roads here are crumbling, with no stable source of revenue for the fund that fixes them. Public-transit commuters are facing a 9 percent fare hike in September. And the state budget that Christie just signed into law for the fiscal year that begins today spends about a $1 billion less on education than the state’s school-aid law calls for, and nearly $2 billion less than the amount promised in pension-funding laws Christie himself enacted.
There are economic issues as well, including a 6.5 percent unemployment rate that’s higher than the national average and higher than the jobless rates in most other states, and revenue collections that still lag behind the pre-recession peak despite business-tax cuts and other pro-growth initiatives enacted since Christie took office in early 2010 that were supposed to grow the economy.
Christie’s approval rating in New Jersey was at just 30 percent in a recent Fairleigh Dickinson University PublicMind poll.
Analilia Mejia, director of the New Jersey Working Families Alliance, said Christie may be trying to forge his national reputation as a truth-teller, but he is “shamelessly trying to spin a dismal record here in New Jersey.”
“The middle class is paying more in property taxes while the wealthy and politically connected enjoy big tax breaks,” Mejia said. “America, take it from us: You do not want what Chris Christie is selling.” Wendell Steinhauer, the president of the New Jersey Education Association, said Christie should step down as governor to accommodate his run for president, something the governor has so far said he will not do.
“We face big problems in this state,” Steinhauer said. “New Jersey’s taxpayers deserve better than a part-time governor who collects a full-time salary while he travels the country to advance his own career, and lets taxpayers pick up the tab.”
Yet for Christie, the biggest obstacles between him and the Republican nomination right now may not be his standing in New Jersey, but with the national GOP. Once a top-tier candidate coming off an impressive 2013 re-election win, Christie was hobbled by the ensuing George Washington Bridge lane-closure scandal, with three key officials in his administration facing federal criminal charges.
The latest survey of national GOP voters conducted by the Monmouth University Poll had Christie tied for eighth among potential Republican candidates, trailing former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and U.S. Sens. Marco Rubio, Rand Paul and Ted Cruz, among others. His favorability rating was also widely upside down at 26 percent favorable and 43 percent unfavorable.
And Christie placed 11th in a recent Fox News poll, which is important because he will have to place in the top 10 to get on the TV network’s debate stage.
Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth Poll, said Christie was wise to soften his delivery during yesterday’s announcement speech, focusing on imagery of his childhood in Livingston and his goal of restoring the country for the next generation of children, including his own, who joined him on the stage along with his wife, Mary Pat.
“It was definitely a solid entrance into the field,” Murray said.Matthew Hale, a political science professor at Seton Hall University, said the “hometown message” Christie emphasized should serve him well going forward.
“He made a really nice connection,” Hale said.
Right after the announcement, Christie headed to New Hampshire, where he will be holding a series of events for the next several days through the July 4th holiday weekend. He’s already focused a lot of attention and resources on the early primary state in recent weeks, and he will likely need to win or at least score very well there to become a successful candidate.
With questions about Christie’s record and the New Jersey economy likely looming among voters in New Hampshire, Hale predicted Christie already has an explanation at the ready. He noted tax cuts and other Christie policy initiatives were blocked by Democrats who control the New Jersey Legislature.
“He’s got a really easy pivot – it’s the Democrats’ fault,” Hale said.
NJ Spotlight, an independent online news service on issues critical to New Jersey, makes its in-depth reporting available to NewsWorks.