LAWRENCE TOWNSHIP, N.J. — Ever since Gov. Chris Christie dropped out of the Republican presidential race and backed Donald Trump, he has taken quite a beating while helping the man he calls “Mr. Trump” try to win the White House.
Now, after months of kowtowing to Trump, the roles were reversed — if only for a few hours.
Trump appeared at a fundraiser here Thursday night to help retire the debt Christie still carries from his failed presidential campaign. The two men appeared at a National Guard armory outfitted with chandeliers, where people paid $200 to get in the door and help Christie pay down about $400,000 in campaign obligations — though some said they got in for free. Trump also appeared at a $25,000-per-head event to help fill the coffers of the New Jersey Republican Party.
These amount to the first campaign fundraising events for Trump, who long pilloried big-money donors but entered into a joint fundraising effort this week between his campaign and the Republican National Committee.
Gone was the extreme animosity exhibited by the men on the campaign trail, where Trump once eviscerated Christie’s record in the state. Here he ticked off a list of Christie’s accomplishments as governor and said the event allowed Christie to retire his campaign debt.
“He has brought greatness to every enterprise he has ever led,” Christie said of Trump.
The event is also the first for the two men on Christie’s home turf, a place where a governor who pledged to “tell it like it is” is now on the receiving end of tough talk from his constituents. Most New Jersey residents were not pleased with Christie’s foray into the world of presidential politics, and they really don’t like the idea of the governor yoking himself to Trump to further his political career.
According to a Quinnipiac University poll released Wednesday, about two-thirds of New Jerseyans surveyed disapprove of Christie’s job performance — the worst approval rating for any governor in six years of the poll, which surveys nine states.
In addition, 74 percent of residents surveyed think Trump should not pick Christie as his running mate. Republicans tended to view Christie’s job performance more favorably, but not the idea of him becoming Trump’s No. 2: Sixty-four percent of Republicans surveyed said Christie should not be Trump’s vice president.
And because this is New Jersey, no one has any problems making their feelings known.
“I am absolutely appalled that the governor doesn’t even seem to be embarrassed by Donald Trump,” said state Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D), who frequently tangles with Christie. The governor once said that the media should “take the bat” to the lawmaker, who was 76 years old at the time.
“He apparently has no moral compass . . . which has led him directly to Donald Trump, and I want to get out of New Jersey any way I can, and here he is,” Weinberg said of Christie, whose term ends in January 2018.
Christie’s alliance with Trump was blasted from the start by those in the GOP establishment, by many Republicans in New Jersey and even by some who backed his presidential bid. They said Christie became an opportunist the second he bowed out of the race. Multiple newspapers in the state called on Christie to resign.
And then there were the uncomfortable optics of the whole thing. Last month, Christie’s wife appeared to grimace while standing behind Trump as he said that Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton wouldn’t get 5 percent of the vote if she were a man. And at one of Trump’s victory events in March after winning seven states, Christie stood behind the mogul with a pained and vacant stare that prompted widespread jeering on social media.
“I want everyone to know for those who were concerned: I wasn’t being held hostage. I wasn’t upset. I wasn’t angry. I wasn’t despondent,” Christie said later a news conference in New Jersey.
But Trump appeared to get in a dig at Christie here on Thursday. Trump often blasts Nabisco for moving to Mexico and says he will no longer eat Oreos.
“I’m not eating Oreos anymore. . . . Neither is Chris,” Trump said. Christie had weight-loss surgery years ago.
Trump has named Christie to be the head of his transition team in preparation for the possibility of Trump winning in November, and the governor is also reportedly heading up Trump’s debate prep. But here in New Jersey, the governor’s backing of Trump has little direct consequence because the state is so solidly Democratic. Some think it could even backfire in a rough-and-tumble state where a brash New Yorker should theoretically fit right in and where he owns a golf course.
“The fact that Christie endorsed Trump probably hurts Trump in the state,” said Brigid Callahan Harrison, a professor of political science at Montclair State University. “He is damaged goods to the extent that he has likely precluded even the possibility of a Republican successfully contesting the 2017 gubernatorial [race].”
Trump expressed his love for the state here Thursday. “There’s nothing like New Jersey,” Trump said. “So many wiseguys.”
New Jersey is grappling with a number of fiscal issues, including a sluggish recovery, a decrease in its credit rating and billions of dollars in unfunded pension liabilities. And then there is the town that dogs both Christie and Trump — Atlantic City, which Christie unsuccessfully attempted to rescue and where one of Trump’s casinos went bankrupt. The state legislature is now hammering out a plan that would prevent the city from going under.
Then there is “Bridgegate,” a 2013 scandal in which Christie staffers and appointees appeared to collude to create traffic jams to hurt the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee, who didn’t endorse Christie. Trump has said in the past that Christie “totally knew about” the lane closings. Apparently, things have changed: The state party portion of the fundraiser will help pay down hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees incurred responding to subpoenas.
“For the average person, Bridgegate is old news,” said Holly Schepisi, a Republican assemblywoman who supports Christie but has some reservations about Trump.
Schepisi said she believes that fault for a number of issues in the state, from its high property taxes to fiscal matters, rests more with decades of inaction by the legislature than with Christie’s out-of-state travel schedule or presidential campaign. She also said she appreciates Trump appearing with Christie on Thursday.
“Because of the governor putting himself out there and putting himself out there so early to a lot of negative criticism,” she said, “I think this is Donald Trump’s recognition of that and a small way of attempting to say thank you for the loyalty he has shown.”