New Jersey Governor Chris Christie wasn’t up-for re-election in this year’s heated midterm races, in which 36 governor’s seats were up for grabs, but he looks like a winner as the dust begins to settle and final results continue to roll in.
As chairman of the Republican Governor’s Association, Christie has been criss-crossing the country non-stop for months, campaigning alongside GOP candidates. Some races are still too close to call, but so far at least 22 of the 34 candidates the governor stumped for have emerged victorious. The number of GOP governors in the country increased from 29 to at least 31.
With Christie’s help, several high-profile and controversial incumbent governors in heated races secured another term in office, including Republican Govs. Rick Scott of Florida, Scott Walker of Wisconsin, Sam Brownback of Kansas, and Paul LePage of Maine.
But in a "TODAY" interview Wednesday morning, Christie didn't take any credit.
"The candidates deserve the credit. It’s always about the candidates,” Christie said. “… It’s not about me. I was happy to help. I’m glad to have their confidence, but that’s all it is.”
As eyes turn to the 2016 presidential race now that the midterms are over, the story inevitably turns to Christie -- and how those GOP wins will affect the governor's potential presidential ambitions.
"I’ll have to figure that out … [wife] Mary Pat and I have to start to talk about it in earnest and make a decision, but today is a day to celebrate what my fellow governors have done and I’m glad to just have played a small part in it for them."
Christie's frequent stops in early voting states like Iowa, South Carolina, New Hampshire, and Florida have certainly fueled speculation that the Garden State governor is indeed seriously considering making a bid for the nation’s highest office. Though Christie has said he has no intention of making a decision until early next year, his role as RGA chairman has thrust him into the national spotlight.
Of the crucial 2016 states Christie visited on behalf of gubernatorial candidates, the results were mixed. In Florida, the RGA funneled $19 million to Scott’s political, committee the largest expenditure in a state in the association’s history. Scott managed to eke out a win, by about one percentage point, against former Republican-turned-Independent-turned-Democrat Charlie Crist.
In Iowa, Gov. Terry Brandstad secured a sixth term, handily beating Democrat Jack Hatch 59% to 37%. In South Carolina, incumbent Gov. Nikki Haley sailed to victory, crushing Democrat Vincent Sheheen 56% to 41%. In New Hampshire, Christie (who visited the state four times) hoped to propel GOP nominee Walt Havenstein to victory, but incumbent Democrat Maggie Hassan secured a win, 53% to 48%.
Analysts said the GOP wins across the country and massive RGA fundraising are evidence Christie can point to in making his case that he’s a national leader to the conservative electorate should he decide to run in 2016.
“It was unprecedented, the record setting amount of money Gov. Christie raised for these candidates and the amount of time he spent time,” said Brigid Harrison, a political science professor at Montclair State University, adding that while Christie played a big role in the midterms, the GOP wins had a lot to do with a general “Republican wave that splashed the country.”
"There are now political debts out there to collect," she said.
Of course, Christie still has plenty of baggage. His popularity rating took a hit following the "Bridgegate" scandal last September, in which it was revealed that several of his staffers and allies closed lanes on the busy George Washington Bridge, seemingly for political retribution. Christie has denied any prior knowledge of the plot.
In addition, the blue-state governor has never been a favorite of his party’s right wing. 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.
RGA Executive Director Phil Cox said on a conference call with reporters on Wednesday that Christie was "instrumental" to the GOP's success.
"Governor Christie has absolutely raised the bar for RGA chairmen," Cox said. "He has got a great national profile, and he is one of the best communicators that we have in our party."
The potential 2016 Republican presidential field is very crowded. Notably, several of the governors Christie campaigned for, including Walker and Ohio’s John Kasich, are also considered candidates who could run in 2016.
According to an NBC News national exit poll of voters following the midterm races, just 24% said Christie would make a good president, tied with Texas Gov. Rick Perry. Meanwhile, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush came out on top with 29% followed by Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul with 26%. Democrat Hillary Clinton received the most support; 43% of midterm voters said she would make a good president.
"I think we’ll see the governor use his connections to both help organizationally, but to help him raise money and to make very important county chairmen remember who he is and what they did for him,” said Harrison.