When one election booth closes, another one opens. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie will secure his re-election today and begin his race for the White House tomorrow. Wherever he falls in the ultimate order of GOP candidates trying to win their party’s nomination, he will occupy a familiar historical spot: the untested juggernaut. Christie’s advantages for the 2016 presidential race are many: He’s a media darling, can raise boatloads of cash, has a plausible nomination story, and he’s an exciting and forceful personality. But like other high-expectation candidates, he has also never been tested in the unique crucible of a presidential campaign. Christie is a volatile hothead about to enter a process that makes the most even-tempered fly off the handle. Primaries are irritating, petty, and grueling, and 2016 could be particularly brutish if it turns out to be the grand reckoning in the GOP’s civil war over the soul of the party. As the establishment’s man, Christie will face tests a lot more challenging than the Garden State’s Democratic Party.
The Christie bedtime story being sold by his staff is that he can do for Republicans nationally what he has done for New Jersey. He can govern as a conservative, even in a state with 700,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans, and win bipartisan love along the way. In a country thirsty for pragmatism and progress, he is the top dog among Republican governors selling themselves as the competent conservative cousins to the backward and grumpy relations in Congress. After losing the popular vote in five of the last six elections, Republicans are hungry for success and they want a winner. “Sometimes, I feel like our party cares more about winning the argument than they care about winning elections. And if you don’t win elections, you can’t govern,” Christie told CNN’s Jake Tapper on Tuesday. If you need proof of what the alternative political strategy looks like, Gov. Christie would like to introduce you to the darling of the party’s hard-core conservatives, Ken Cuccinelli—the governor of nothing at all.
It’s a compelling pitch, but it isn’t going to spare Christie a fight that will test his temperament. He could very well survive the Republican primaries just fine—the GOP has tapped the establishment candidate more often than not—but the question for Christie is whether he has the skills to emerge from the warping primary process with his pleasing bedtime story intact. That has always been a challenge for any candidate, but it may be particularly acute in Christie’s case: Grassroots Republicans are trying to look into candidates’ souls and Christie’s can be a volatile place. Bombast and periodic eruptions are part of Christie’s act, but what is that going to look like when he pops off at some conservative activist who corners him in a windowless ballroom at a Lincoln Day Dinner?
What issue is likely to trip up Christie and cause this problem? He’s pro-life and against gay marriage, which would suggest he should fare well with cultural conservatives. His trouble will come from his request for relief money to fight the effects of Hurricane Sandy and accepting federal Medicaid money as a part of the Affordable Care Act. But to dissect the issues puts too much emphasis on them. The overarching worry among conservatives will be that no matter what the issue, a man who makes such a fetish of his ability to work with Democrats is going to sell out conservatives in the end. This tension has been at the core of the fight between the Republican Party establishment and grassroots since the 1940s. Sometimes that fight is about policy, but often the candidates are so close in their positions that the fight is more about personality and tactics. A quote from Michael Bowen’s Roots of Modern Conservatism: Dewey, Taft, and the Battle for the Soul of the Republican Party brings this home. “It is important to bear in mind that the major political controversies today do not center about objectives,” said a Republican staffer, “but mainly about methods of attaining objectives.” That was a quote from more than 60 years ago, but could just as easily apply to last month’s fight over defunding Obamacare.
The fight over “methods for attaining objectives” is already underway. Embedded in Christie’s argument for his presidential candidacy is a jab at grassroots conservatives. The purists don’t get it, he has argued; Republicans need to win elections to get their policies enacted, and if they insist on purity they’ll never nominate anyone who can get elected. Conservatives, on the other hand, believe that if you run on principle and stand on principle you bring voters to you.
The exact policy terrain where this inevitable fight will take place has yet to be determined, but there are other reasons conservatives are suspicious of Christie. He has all the wrong friends. The media likes Christie and so does the establishment. As Dan Balz writes in his book Collision 2012, a who’s-who of the Eastern elite begged Christie in one of those vast polished wood rooms in a private New York club and pushed him to run for president. During one quarter of fundraising, Christie received money from top Democratic donors. Those who anticipate Christie will abandon them in the end point to his self-centered 2012 convention speech and his embrace of President Obama in the late days of the campaign. That is the brew that kept Christie from getting an invitation to the Conservative Political Action Conference, despite his being the most popular conservative in the nation, proof that purity tests are being administered regardless of other factors.
So who will fill the ABC (Anybody But Christie) slot, and will they be able to lay a glove on him? There’s no clear choice, but in the 2012 contest voters cycled through a series of Anybody But Romney misfits, suggesting that activists will back pretty much anyone if they run as the anti-establishment figure. In 2008, proof of this tissue rejection was that when the grassroots thought Sen. John McCain wasn’t conservative enough, they actually rallied around Romney.
Will all of this infighting doom Christie? Only if he lets it. He enters the next level of 2016 speculation facing three options: He blows up like Rudy Giuliani and Rick Perry, he warps himself to please the base like McCain and Romney, or he gets in a life and death struggle and emerges to win the general election the way George Bush did in 2000.
The only qualification for the launchpad blow-up is high expectations and the comfort that comes from being lauded for your greatness. Both Giuliani and Perry were considered formidable at one time, but turned out to be incapable of handling the rigors of a campaign. When they cratered, they had no campaign experience to fall back on that allowed them to climb back into the race. McCain, a born fighter, rescued his campaign in 2008 in part because he had been through the presidential slog before.* But McCain, like Romney, also warped himself and his message in the GOP primary process in order to appeal to conservative voters. That undermined his general election appeal. Christie doesn’t seem to be taking that route. If he does, his friends in the green rooms and board rooms will bury him under a mountain of advice that he’s ruining his straight-talking brand. The likely avenue is that Christie will run against the Democrats whose votes he’s been courting, arguing that his ability to get anything conservative done in a blue state shows that he can stick to his principles even under the constant assault of baying socialists.
George Bush’s challenge didn’t come from the right, but from McCain in the middle. Bush emerged from the contest honed and sharpened—and with few lasting scars that his opponent could exploit. That’s not going to happen this time. The reverse is more likely: Christie surfs the Civil War, allowing those competing on his right to punch themselves out and leave him standing. That will take a lot of patience and thick skin. His training begins now.
Correction, Nov. 6, 2013: This article mistakenly referred to John McCain’s last presidential campaign as having taken place in 2012. He last ran in 2008. (Return.)