New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie will test out his 2016 appeal when he visits New Hampshire on Friday to endorse Walt Havenstein, who’s running in a contested Republican gubernatorial primary. If Havenstein wins, he’ll take on Democrat Maggie Hassan this fall. But will Christie’s endorsement, retail campaign stops and a grassroots fundraiser alongside Havenstein make a difference in the gubernatorial race? And if so, will it hurt or help Havenstein’s chances of winning?
From the perspective of Christie’s future plans for himself, the visit makes complete sense. The trip is sure to generate buzz that Christie—despite allegations that his office abused its power – is seriously considering a bid for the Oval Office, as the Granite State holds crucial, first-in-the-nation presidential primaries. Before the so-called ‘Bridgegate’ scandal hit, New Hampshire – a state filled with moderate and independent voters —was seen as right up Christie’s alley.
But surveys have consistently shown that Hassan, who remains popular, has a 2-to-1 advantage over her potential GOP opponents. In a head-to-head general election match-up, Hassan would beat Havenstein, a retired corporate executive, 48% to 19%, according to a recent WMUR Granite State Poll. When Hassan is paired up against Havenstein’s GOP primary opponent, entrepreneur Andrew Hemingway, the Democrat would still win in a hypothetical matchup, 49% to 22%. And the non-partisan Rothenberg Political Report has rated the race as “currently safe Democrat.”
Meanwhile, Havenstein is seen as the favorite among the party’s establishment, while Hemingway hedges further right and has tea party backing. And some experts say that despite Christie’s troubles, he still has at least one thing going for him: name recognition.
“Christie’s appearance will overall help Havenstein, who’s not a household name in New Hampshire politics by any stretch,” said Dante Scala, a University of New Hampshire political science professor. Scala noted, however, that Christie’s reputation in New Hampshire has suffered as a result of documents showing some of the governor’s aides and allies were involved in a scheme to close lanes on the George Washington Bridge, seemingly in an act of political retribution. Christie has denied any prior knowledge of the plot but his administration remains under several federal and state investigations related to the scandal. “They don’t think as highly of him as they once did,” said Scala.
Pointing to Hassan’s popularity, Joseph Bafumi, an associate professor of government at Dartmouth College, said Christie’s visit will not make a difference in the general election. But in the primary, it certainly could. A survey by Republican polling group, Vox Populi, shows Hemingway and Havenstein tied with 12% each – but 75% of GOP primary voters are still undecided.
The lane closure plan “hurt him some, but most people here want to wait and hear what the investigation delivers. They’re not ready to condemn Christie for doing anything wrong,” said Bafumi. He added, however, that Christie’s national spotlight on the race could result in a “backlash effect,” in which nationally-known, far right candidates come out for Hemingway.
Hemingway argued that Christie stumping alongside his opponent actually helps his campaign, and exemplifies just how moderate both Christie and Havenstein are. “I think it further delineates our two campaigns, and for that I’m thankful,” said Hemingway, who served as the state director for Newt Gingrich’s presidential campaign before the 2012 primary.
Meanwhile, the New Hampshire Democratic Party is trying to draw similarities between Christie and Havenstein, arguing they both have a history of mismanagement and failed leadership. “It’s no surprise that Walt’s first major endorsement event is with Christie – they’re two failed peas in a pod. If Chris Christie is Walt Havenstein’s model for how he would govern our state, he’d be even worse for New Hampshire than we already knew and would devastate our economy and middle class families,” said Julie McClain, communications director for the NHDP.
It’s also worth noting that the endorsement is rare for Christie, who heads the Republican Governors Association (RGA). Typically, the group waits until after a gubernatorial primary to back the decided GOP nominee.
The RGA told msnbc earlier this month that Christie also plans to visit presidential heavyweight states Iowa and South Carolina in the near future. According to Real Clear Politics’ average of polling data surrounding the New Hampshire Republican presidential primary, Christie is in second place with 13.7% support behind Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky’s 15%. In Iowa, Christie fares worse, coming in sixth place.
Christie – who once led the pack in the nascent race to become the GOP presidential nominee – is clearly trying to move beyond “Bridgegate.” Last week, he appeared on “The Tonight Show” with Jimmy Fallon – his first foray back into late-night comedic television since his administration was rocked by the allegations. He also spoke to donors at Mitt Romney’s three day political retreat in Utah over the weekend and has plans to keynote this month’s annual Faith & Freedom “Road to Majority” conference in Washington D.C., where thousands of evangelicals are set to gather and hear from potential 2016 candidates.
Even if Havenstein loses in the primary or general election, it’s no big deal for Christie, said Scala. “You should never miss an opportunity to build good will among New Hampshire Republicans, especially ones who are likely to be attracted to a Chris Christie run,” he said.
The visit will mark Christie’s first to the state since 2012, when he campaigned on behalf of Mitt Romney.