The conservative backlash against Chris Christie, and why it matters

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) has hit the low point of his political career. And conservatives critics are there to remind him about it.


(Mel Evans/AP)

Christie has long been viewed with skepticism by the right because of his cooperation with Democrats -- most notably President Obama during the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy -- and his positions on guns, immigration and gay marriage. Now, amid a scandal involving his aides' decision to close a bridge as an apparent act of political retribution, some on the right are again raising red flags about the prospect of a Christie 2016 presidential campaign.

"This is the other side of the double-edged sword that is Chris Christie's heavy-handed persona and governing style," said Keith Appell, a conservative political strategist. "At one level there's an appeal about it, but underneath it you sense it could blow up.  The boss sets the tone for those around him and beneath him."

Appell said he doesn't think "this is the last story we're going to see about problems with Christie's governing style, and even GOP establishment power brokers and money people will be concerned about how this plays in the 2016 primaries and caucuses."

Conservative blogger Erick Erickson wrote Wednesday that the bridge scandal illustrates one of Christie's chief weaknesses.

"I’m ambivalent on his run for the Presidency," wrote Erickson on RedState.com. "But I don’t see him getting that far for the very reasons underlying this issue -- he and his staff operate as divas."

Craig Robinson, a former Iowa GOP political director who founded the Iowa Republican news Web site, said he doesn't think the bridge scandal will, on its own, affect the way conservatives in the first-in-the-nation caucus state view Christie. But, he added, if it's just the first of a series of revelations and feeds a larger narrative that Christie is purely political creature, it could hurt him.

"There seems to be a lot of political calculation that goes on with him. I think that's what going to give Iowa conservatives a lot of heartburn should he run," Robinson said.

Here's why the criticism and concern matters: It provides a glimpse at the tough reality Christie will have to confront in his own party as he moves toward what looks like a likely bid for president in 2016.

Since Christie won a resounding reelection victory in November, Democrats have unleashed a new round of attacks against the governor, a signal they view him as the most formidable Republican in the prospective field. But Christie is also going to have to deal with criticism from the right. And whenever he stumbles -- like now -- they will be there to pile on. That's true more than ever now that Christie is a national figure.

"Christie is living in a new world," said Robinson.

Input from the rest of the prospective 2016 GOP field has been muted. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who has feuded publicly over national security issues with Christie, has not weighed in. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) declined to defend or malign Christie in an interview Thursday morning conducted before Christie addressed the media in a news conference.

"I think what we should do, for those of us who are watching, is allow that process in New Jersey to move forward," Rubio told CNN. "I understand the legislature there is looking at it. But, I'm just not going to comment on something I don't know anything about."

Christie apologized Thursday, announced that he'd fired his deputy chief of staff and urged his former campaign manager not to pursue the chairmanship of the state GOP. He said he first learned of the details of bridge episode on Wednesday and was not involved with the decision in any way.

"I’m heartbroken about it, and I’m incredibly disappointed," the governor said.

There are many people who will not be satisfied with that response. And not all of them are Democrats.

Sean Sullivan covers national politics for “The Fix.”
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