As an establishment Republican governing a blue state in the northeast, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie used to sound like a moderate. Not anymore.
Recently, Christie vetoed gun control legislation, declared that the gay marriage debate isn’t over, and took a more hardline stance on Israel. Indeed, he looks like a candidate racing to the right in the lead up to the 2016 presidential election.
“It’s for national purposes, to make a play at the primary and caucuses in places where he could have trouble,” said Jeanne Zaino, a professor of political science at Iona College and professor of political campaign management at New York University. “… It’s an effort to drum up support on the right.”
Many conservative primary voters have always viewed Christie as a RINO—Republican in Name Only. There’s still anger over Christie’s notorious embrace of President Obama after Hurricane Sandy, shortly before the 2012 presidential election. And many in the conservative base think Christie is too moderate on issues like gun control, climate change, and gay marriage. To them, he represents the cautious establishment – not the sort of true conservative the grassroots desire. And his recent actions may be geared toward appeasing those constituents.
“He’s testing positions to see how they resonate with staunchly conservative GOP voters. That’s who is he courting right now. The statements he has made are not consistent with the views of most New Jerseyans,” said Brigid Harrison, a political science professor at Montclair State University.
Gov. Christie’s office did not respond to requests for comment.
Earlier this month, Christie vetoed a bill, passed by both houses of the State Legislature, to reduce magazine capacity from 15 rounds to 10 rounds. In explaining his decision, Christie said the legislation would do nothing to reduce gun violence, calling it “reform in name only.” He said, “It simply defies common sense to believe that imposing a new and entirely arbitrary number of bullets that can be lawfully loaded into a firearm will somehow eradicate, or even reduce, future instances of mass violence.”
In the past, Christie has been more moderate on gun rights. In 2009, Christie told Fox News’ Sean Hannity that New Jersey has a “handgun problem.” In 1995, when running for state general assembly, he distributed flyers calling his opponents “crazy” for supporting the repeal of an assault rifle ban.
Harrison told msnbc at the time of the veto that the easy choice for Christie if he weren’t considering a presidential run would have been to pass the gun control bill. “So why would someone who is pretty serious about crime issues veto the measure? You don’t want to alienate the NRA and gun activists in [early voting states of] New Hampshire and Iowa,” she said.
On gay marriage, Christie said over the weekend that even though the issue is “settled” in his state, the GOP shouldn’t give up the fight. The governor, who has said he believes marriage should is between one man and one woman (but said the issue should be left to the states), drew criticism from conservatives after dropping his fight against a court decision allowing gay couples to tie the knot in the Garden State in 2013.
Joan Walsh, an MSNBC political analyst, said that Christie, “the guy who was going to make Republicans competitive even in blue states like New Jersey,” would have been expected to take a more “courageous” stance on marriage equality.
But “now that Christie’s hopes have been seriously dimmed by ongoing investigations into New Jersey political payback scandals, he’s got to worry even more about the party’s far-right base if he does run. Hence his gay marriage gambit,” she wrote for Salon.
The governor’s administration is currently under federal and state investigation over allegations that some of his staffers and allies closed lanes on the George Washington Bridge back in September, seemingly for political retribution. Christie has denied any prior knowledge of the plot.
And on Israel, over the weekend, Christie pummeled President Obama, partially blaming him for the recent escalation of violence in the Middle East. “Israel is not sure that they have America’s full support like they used to. And that’s a real failure of this presidency,” said Christie.
Earlier this year, the governor, who is seen as someone with few foreign policy credentials, offended some of the GOP’s biggest donors, pro-Israel activists and billionaire campaign bankroller Sheldon Adelson, after referring to the West Bank as the “occupied territories.” He reportedly apologized to Adelson. But he was again criticized a month later after delivering an 18-minute speech to the Champions of Jewish Values International Awards Gala, which was filled with donors, without mentioning Israel once.
Morton Klein, an Adelson ally and president of the Zionist Organization of America – who has been outspoken in his criticism of Christie – applauded the governor for his remarks but said he remained skeptical of his genuineness. “He may be doing this to appease pro-Israel people who he offended. I’m still very concerned.”
There are still some hot issues – like the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision and immigration – that Christie has shied away from.
Zaino said Christie is hedging carefully, “dipping his toe into some of these issues” while trying to determine “which way the wind is blowing” on others. But that, she said, can be damaging in and of itself.
“He should be moving the party instead of his direction instead of following. His ‘tell it like it is’ reputation is what people found attractive about him … This is a dangerous path. Mitt Romney could tell him that.”
Christie has said he doesn’t intend to make a decision on running for commander-in-chief until a year from now. He is currently in the heavyweight political state of Iowa.