Christie tries to keep up momentum by pumping for Keystone

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie on Nov. 4, 2014 at the Emergency Services Building in Mendham Twp., N.J. (Jeff Zelevansky/Getty)
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie on Nov. 4, 2014 at the Emergency Services Building in Mendham Twp., N.J.

The controversial Keystone XL pipeline project may have temporarily died in the Senate this week, but New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is eager to bring the issue back to life ahead of a potential 2016 presidential run.

He’ll visit Canada in early December — his second trip outside of the U.S. since September — where he’ll meet with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. The Garden State governor is expected to give an energy policy speech in which he'll aggressively trumpet the pipeline, which would create an oil transport system from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. On a recent trip to Mexico, he also forcefully pushed the for construction of the pipeline and not-so-subtly dinged the Obama administration for blocking it.

RELATED: Native American willing to ‘spill my blood’ to stop Keystone XL

For Christie, “this is all about keeping up the momentum” after a very successful stint in the midterm elections, said Republican strategist Ford O’Connell. After all, as head of the Republican Governors Association, Christie helped propel seven new GOP governors into office, leaving scandals like so-called “Bridgegate” seemingly in the dust. “For someone like Christie, foreign affairs isn’t in his wheelhouse, so it’s a winning issue for him ... It’s also an issue [lawmakers] are going to want to bring up immediately when the new Congress is seated.”

Jeanne Zaino, a professor of political science at Iona College and of political campaign management at New York University, believes the trip shows he is trying to shore up his GOP base, something she describes as Christie’s “biggest challenge.” Many on the right have hammered Christie for being too moderate on issues like gun control and gay marriage. To them, he represents the cautious establishment — not the sort of true conservative the grassroots supporters desire.

“It’s still an uphill battle for him to play in the Midwest and the South. He really does feel like he needs to shore up the Republican base and make inroads there,” said Zaino. From that perspective, going to Canada to support an oil pipeline that environmentalists have long opposed is like throwing red meat to the conservative base, she noted.

The Keystone issue could not come up at a more opportune time. The GOP-led House voted last week to approve the project, but the Senate (in which Democrats previously avoided bringing up the controversial project) narrowly rejected it by one vote. The project gained new momentum with Democrats in the upper chamber of Congress abandoning their effort to block a roll call from taking place. They did so in hopes of helping embattled Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu win a December runoff race in her state.

The issue is expected to come up again in the new Congress, reigniting a political battle for Obama, who has suggested he might veto legislation even if both houses of Congress approve it.

RELATED: Senate votes down Keystone XL pipeline

Proponents of Keystone — mainly labor unions, oil companies, Republicans and moderate Democrats like Landrieu — argue the plan would create thousands of jobs and make the country less dependent on oil from the Middle East. Critics say the project would release dangerous greenhouse gas emissions, would not bring in significant numbers of new jobs, and would have no effect on U.S. gas prices.

Christie’s two-day trip, scheduled to start Dec. 4, includes stops in Calgary, Toronto and Ottawa. The official purpose of the trip is to encourage economic and business ties with Canada, but it’s also being viewed as a way for the governor to beef up his foreign policy résumé. He has only taken two trips outside the country as governor — to Israel in 2012 and Mexico this past September.

"It’s still an uphill battle for him to play in the Midwest and the South. He really does feel like he needs to shore up the Republican base and make inroads there."'

That's compared to the 112 countries Hillary Clinton — anticipated to be any Republican presidential contender's primary opponent — visited during her tenure as secretary of state.

Interestingly, when Christie was in Mexico in September, he refused to talk about immigration — even though a flood of immigrants illegally crossing the U.S. border was the number-one, hot-button issue at the time. The governor told reporters he would only discuss the issue “if and when I become a candidate for president of the United States." He added, “But until that time, that’s not my job and it’s not my role.” (Christie did however criticize Obama’s executive actions on immigration reform this week, arguing on Thursday that the president is not trying hard enough to build a “trustful relationship” with Republican lawmakers in Congress.)

Keystone, it seems, is an entirely different matter. During the Mexico trip, the governor delivered a policy speech at the American Chamber of Commerce of Mexico, in which he praised the controversial project.

RELATED: How Chris Christie won the midterms

“We are missing an enormous opportunity when we delay development of the Keystone XL Pipeline,” said Christie. He added that "It should have been done a long time ago. It should have been done today.” Christie also urged for the U.S. to green-light natural gas pipelines between America and Mexico in a thinly veiled attack on Obama, who he did not mention by name.

Keystone, said O’Connell, is something “all Republicans can rally around. It’s not something that divides Republicans like immigration reform. The news lined up with Christie’s ambitions.”