PHOENIX — New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) insists that his sole focus over the next year is to elect and reelect Republican governors across the country. But Christie’s fans and foes alike, gathered here at the Republican Governors Association’s annual conference, are already looking ahead to what they see as an almost inevitable presidential campaign.
Christie, who was elected Thursday to lead the RGA through the 2014 midterm elections, was the unmistakable star of the conference. Other governors touting their accomplishments in areas like education, tax reform and pension reform were invariably dogged by questions about the second-term New Jersey governor and his prospects on the campaign trail.
“It’s called celebrity,” Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R) told reporters. “If you don’t have a little pizzazz, it’s hard to get anybody to notice. And I don’t think you can work on pizzazz. You’ve either kind of got it or you don’t.”
Christie will lead a political committee that has grown in stature in recent years. After the Republican wave of 2010, there are 30 Republican governors across the country, compared with just 20 Democrats. The RGA has vastly outraised its counterpart, the Democratic Governors Association.
Taking over gives Christie access to the major donors he will need to court before mounting a costly presidential bid, while enabling him to travel to key states to begin building a foundation from which to run. Several previous RGA chairmen, including Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R), used their tenures to prepare for presidential bids.
But, Christie insists, he is focused on the immediacy of the 2014 elections.
“I’m two weeks out of a campaign. I’m not looking to start speculating about other campaigns already,” Christie said. Republicans “start thinking about 2016 at our own peril and, worse, at the peril of our colleagues.”
Christie’s ascension comes, in part, at the expense of Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R), another potential presidential contender who ended his term as RGA chairman Thursday. Christie and Jindal had tussled over the chairmanship heading into the 2014 elections, CNN reported Thursday, but eventually struck an accord: Jindal will stay on as vice chairman, giving him the same excuse to travel the country meeting big donors.
But while Jindal’s star has been eclipsed by Christie’s in the last year, the wunderkind former congressman and state Health Department director still is clearly interested in making his own White House bid.
Governors eager to set themselves apart from a deeply unpopular Congress tried to present themselves as bipartisan problem-solvers. At the very moment the United States Senate voted to change its rules for approving presidential nominees, Christie and three colleagues were on stage touting their own accomplishments while contrasting themselves with the shenanigans in Washington.
“There’s no saints in Washington right now. Republicans and Democrats have royally screwed this up,” South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (R) told the media. “It’s not that we don’t like them personally, it’s that we don’t like the job they’re doing.”
“The only thing we see exported out of D.C. is insanity. It’s insanity,” said Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R).
Behind the scenes, governors who loathe to show any kind of schism among their ranks were squabbling over appointments to the committee’s executive board. Jindal had asked Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) to fill a seat on the board that will be left vacant when Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) leaves office at the end of the year.
But Christie began making phone calls to governors last week, urging them to back Indiana Gov. Mike Pence (R) instead.
Insiders saw the move as a power struggle between two rival camps. Jindal and Perry are close allies; Jindal was one of the Texas governor’s first backers during his 2012 presidential campaign, and Perry, a former RGA chairman himself, is encouraging speculation that he will run for president one more time. Christie, meanwhile, was collecting proxy votes from several governors, including Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad (R) and Ohio’s Kasich, to land Pence on the board.
“He’s assured me he’s got it worked out,” Branstad said of Christie on Thursday morning. “He didn’t tell me the details.”
The two sides agreed to a compromise: The RGA will create an extra seat on the executive committee so that both Pence and Perry can have a seat at the table. One party strategist compared the spat to a high school election — one that means very little to anyone except those competing.
— Dan Balz contributed to this report.