New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, one of the GOP's most-sought after stars following his 2009 victory, is hitting the road to unveil a string of endorsements in the coming weeks, POLITICO has learned.
In what constitutes his first major political trip, the blue-state governor who has the GOP enthralled by his face-off with the public-sector unions—and his passing of a budget with surprising ease—will be traveling to some of the nation’s hottest political battlegrounds in the coming weeks, including a stop in presidential proving ground Iowa.
There, he’ll boost Gov. Terry Branstad—a trip that is sure to amplify the Christie-for-president buzz, although he's emphatically insisted that he is not making a White House run.
The trip marks a new phase in the nine-month tenure of the former federal prosecutor who won a solid victory over incumbent Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine in November 2009, a victory that presaged a significant change in GOP fortunes.
Mike DuHaime, a top Christie strategist, said Christie’s endorsements for Republicans in high-profile races feature a common thread.
"One, he's proven you can win in a blue state," he said. "Two, you can govern effectively in a blue state, even with a Democratic legislature."
The center-right rock star's tour comes at a moment when the Republican Party has been tacking sharply to the right in many national races, and reflects the variety of voices the party is currently looking to as it defines itself heading into 2012. For Christie, sources close to him said, it's a chance to get his message out and promote what he has described as the future road for the party.
According to aides, he will make a Midwestern swing, visiting Michigan to assist gubernatorial hopeful Rick Snyder, Illinois for Republican governor candidate Bill Brady, and Wisconsin on behalf of the eventual GOP gubernatorial nominee after the state's Sept. 14 primary.
Before this week, Christie had made few endorsements, backing only Rep. Mike Castle in his bid for U.S. Senate in Delaware—where the governor went to college—and repeatedly helping former Philadelphia Eagles star Jon Runyan in his congressional bid in South Jersey.
The rollout of Christie's full slate of endorsements began Monday night, at a New York City fundraiser for California gubernatorial hopeful Meg Whitman, the self-funding former eBay CEO who has made taking on the unions a lynchpin of her campaign against Democrat Jerry Brown. Christie will also attend a Whitman campaign event in Los Angeles on Sept. 22.
On Sept. 20, Christie will do one of his few non-gubernatorial events, for congressional candidate Pat Meehan, who's running for an open suburban Philadelphia-based House seat. Like the governor, Meehan is a former U.S. Attorney.
The next day, he'll be at a Republican Governors Association event in New York City—one of the few committee events he's done. The RGA considers Christie among its top-shelf assets right now, and has been quietly hoping to leverage his star power for months.
The governor, however, has used his status cautiously—and sparingly. He shied away from overtly political events until long after he finished a budget deal with the Democratic-controlled legislature in his state.
Christie “has built up a fair amount of political capital, and he's spending it consistently and constructively," said Dan Gerstein, a New York-based Democratic strategist who worked on Sen. Joe Lieberman's campaign as an independent in 2006. "It's another sign that he's a smart politician, and his success is no accident."
Gerstein added, "First off, it shows he is a player beyond New Jersey. Second, it adds to his juice. He's in demand, which will make more people want him, and more people listen to him."
A few weeks ago, Christie was among the headliners at a Republican National Committee event in Midtown Manhattan to draw in new donors and re-recruit some old ones, but that was one of the first he's done. Both the RNC and the RGA poured millions into his race last year, which was a critical help against the self-funding former Goldman Sachs executive Corzine.
One day after his Sept. 22 Whitman event in California, Christie will head to New Mexico for GOP gubernatorial nominee Susana Martinez, a current district attorney who’s made busting government corruption a central theme of her campaign.
That visit will be followed by two days in Ohio campaigning for former congressman and current gubernatorial nominee John Kasich.
After that, Christie will attend two events, Oct. 11 and Oct. 19, for another former prosecutor—Tom Corbett, the Pennsylvania gubernatorial hopeful and current attorney general.
And there may be one or two others, in response to high demand among Republicans hoping to duplicate his win on challenging terrain, and for those hoping to emulate his approach in office.
Christie’s stature in the GOP is such that the RGA on Wednesday night is screening a 20-minute film about Christie and his come-from-behind win, called “Remember November,” in Washington D.C.
While Christie’s victory has inspired fellow blue-state Republicans, it is his budget-cutting efforts that have turned him into something of a darling among conservatives.
He started his term by challenging the powerful teachers unions and other public-sector labor groups on pension reform, and after working for months to woo mayors and lawmakers, he was able to pass a two percent property tax cap and a budget agreement.
On Tuesday, Christie launched the rest of his reform agenda, beginning a string of stops around the state saying the state’s “day of reckoning” has arrived, necessitating drastic changes.
Yet the Bruce Springsteen-loving father of four who has spoken openly of his need to make money after his gubernatorial term is hard to pigeonhole politically.
He tends to view things through the lens of a prosecutor, telling interviewers, for instance, that he wanted to take time to review the health care reform package passed in Washington before commenting on it so he fully saw the implications for his state.
And he has not joined in some of the conservative discussions about immigration policy, most recently saying he didn’t want to join in the political ping-pong over the mosque near Ground Zero. He also pointedly urged people not to paint all of Islam with the brush of terrorism, a contrast to the tone employed by 2012 presidential prospects including Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich.
Gerstein suggested it’s those characteristics that will make Christie a long-term player within the party.
“The Republican party will need moderate, independent-thinking leaders like Christie who can win in blue states, if they’re going to compete on a level playing field,” said Gerstein. “The Republican party needs an antidote to Palinism.”