Rarely are Republican Governors Association chairmanships as complex and overanalyzed as Chris Christie’s promises to be. Thanks to a confluence of circumstances, the New Jersey governor’s every action as RGA head now is assumed to be about something else entirely. The phrase “proxy war” is hovering above his young tenure at the RGA, but it’s not always immediately clear which proxy war his actions are conducting.
For example, one gubernatorial race on next year’s calendar is New York’s, where Andrew Cuomo will try to win a second term. The state GOP seems unlikely to put up a candidate who could make the race competitive, and Christie recently met with one prospective GOP nominee, Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino. Someone told the New York Post’s Fred Dicker that, apparently, Christie was ready to back Astorino against Cuomo. Thus, as Dicker said, next year would provide the first real “Battle between Gov. Cuomo and Chris Christie.”
According to this story line, the possible Cuomo-Astorino race would be a proxy fight between Cuomo and Christie. But Cuomo immediately insisted that, in fact, Christie told him he would not back Cuomo’s opponent. Dicker reported the supposed about-face (Christie says he’s made no commitment) and quoted a GOP operative complaining about the head of the RGA not fully backing a Republican against a prominent Democrat:
“Christie already has a problem with many Republicans refusing to forgive him because of his embrace of [President] Obama and his socially liberal policies,’’ said a nationally prominent GOP operative. “But this bizarre behavior in suggesting he won’t help a Republican defeat a Democratic governor, and a Cuomo no less, could finish off his chances of becoming his party’s nominee for president in 2016,’’ the operative continued.
And so a new proxy war entered the picture. Christie’s decision to back or not to back Astorino against Cuomo was really a geographic fight between a parochial Northeastern Republican and the national GOP, increasingly conservative and ever suspicious of its Northeastern brethren (see Romney, Mitt). Yet as Ben Jacobs notes at the Daily Beast, whether or not Christie devotes resources to backing Astorino would be a pretty silly litmus test for his overall motives:
After all, as head of the RGA, Christie can’t openly support any non-incumbent gubernatorial candidate who has yet to win the GOP’s nomination. Further, as even Dicker admits, Astorino doesn’t stand much of a chance in 2014. Any Republican running statewide in New York would face an uphill battle, let alone one running against a popular and well-financed incumbent like Cuomo. Plus, it’s unclear how much help Christie can offer even if the Westchester County Executive gets the Republican nomination.
The playing field for Republican governors in 2014 isn’t very favorable. The RGA will have to defend incumbents who were elected at the crest of the Tea Party wave in 2010, many of whom, like Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett and Florida Governor Rick Scott, are now deeply unpopular. With limited time and resources to devote to any one race, it might seem less than judicious for Christie to target a popular incumbent in the New York media market rather than focus his efforts on close races in swing states.
That last point is important: it’s expensive to compete in New York, and it will be difficult enough for the GOP to come out of the 2014 gubernatorial elections just holding steady, let alone losing some ground if some of these other contests can’t be salvaged.
But that brings up a third proxy war, and the one that seems like the main event: Christie vs. Cuomo for president. Christie is already expected to run in 2016 (hence the second-guessing from within his party), and Cuomo is thought to at least be considering a run. Cuomo’s decision will probably hinge on whether or not Hillary Clinton runs. If she does jump in the race, which she appears eager to do, a Cuomo decision might wait until some internal polling gets done. Clinton may want to clear the field because she thinks she’ll win anyway, but recent polling suggests she wants to clear the field because she would be far from inevitable if she had any competition.
But Christie surely doesn’t see this as a proxy fight between the two governors. Just as Christie would be mistaken to spend up precious resources fighting for New York as head of the RGA, so too would he be mistaken to spend political capital by hitching his wagon to an unknown underdog when he doesn’t have to. Nor would Christie want to earn the ire of New Yorkers if he can avoid it, since if he runs for president he’ll want New York’s delegates in the primary contest and he’ll want to force the eventual Democratic nominee to have to compete in the Northeast in the general election in states they would have won anyway, just to try to expand the map and spoil Democratic intentions to force the GOP to waste resources defending states like Texas.
And so it’s likely that those overanalyzing Christie’s every step are probably wasting their own time and energy for now. But it does offer some indication of the degree of scrutiny Christie can expect now that, as head of the RGA, he’s officially stepping into a national leadership role.