Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is planning to throw his hat in the ring for the Republican presidential nomination next week. To call him a long-shot candidate is putting it gently: In 2016 he finished sixth in the New Hampshire primary, which he had staked his candidacy on, and since then he has done little to improve his standing in the GOP.
But Christie still has an opportunity to make a splash in the primaries — and the direction of American politics. He’s signaling that he intends to be the Trump slayer in the race by focusing his combative energy on bashing former President Donald Trump for, among other things, his lies about the 2020 election. The strategy is unlikely to give Christie a path to the nomination, but it’s something that no major politician in the GOP has seriously attempted since Trump’s rise. If Christie wounds Trump, or at least forces the rest of the party to take clearer positions on the 2020 election and the Jan. 6 insurrection, his candidacy could be a force for good.
Christie has said that this time around he wants to channel that same gladiatorial instinct against Trump.
Christie was never a serious contender for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, but he made his mark as a brawler. In one of the most famous moments of the primary, he hammered Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida repeatedly over his policy record and his repetitive talking points at a debate days ahead of the New Hampshire primary. “See, Marco, the thing is this: When you’re president of the United States, when you’re governor of a state, the memorized 30-second speech where you talk about how great America is at the end of it doesn’t solve one problem for one person,” Christie said. Many political analysts — and Rubio himself — believe that Christie’s barbs helped crater Rubio’s chances in a critical primary and helped clear a wider path for Trump, who won the race.
Christie has said that this time around he wants to channel that same gladiatorial instinct against Trump. In media appearances, Christie has advocated for direct confrontation with Trump as the only way to beat him. “You can’t beat Donald Trump by playing bumper pool,” he said in an interview on ABC News in May, and he blasted the other candidates for hoping that “if they’re nice to him, that they’ll inherit his voters.” Christie called Trump a “coward” and a “puppet of Putin” in May in response to Trump’s equivocation on Russia’s war against Ukraine. Christie has also said he won’t support Trump for the presidency even if he wins the nomination, citing Trump’s embrace of Jan. 6 protesters. Christie has called for the GOP to drop the lie that the 2020 election was rigged, which was the “red line” that prompted him to sever what were once close ties to Trump.
Christie could advance these points in attack ads and, if he meets the polling and donor threshold, on a debate stage with Trump. There are many reasons his attacks could fall flat. Trump could counter that Christie’s behavior is politically expedient. In 2016, Christie endorsed Trump and helped him with debate prep against Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton before serving as an informal adviser to Trump during his presidency. More substantively, Christie’s views on the 2020 election and the war in Ukraine are at odds with a huge chunk of the Republican base; Christie doesn’t just have to be adversarial to hurt Trump — he has to actually advance arguments that make Trump’s own supporters think less of him. Christie seems to be trying to claim the mantle of the old-school establishment GOP, but it’s unclear whether that faction still has a meaningful constituency in the party.
Whatever the outcome, the prospect of Christie’s focusing aggressively on Trump is worth watching. If he follows through on his promises, he might be the first major Republican political candidate since Trump’s rise to challenge him directly and substantially on the issue of defending American democracy. That could, in turn, embolden other candidates, who have so far largely been scared of explicitly criticizing Trump in what seems to be a replay of the 2016 primaries. Even if Christie’s attacks fail, he may still inspire other candidates to close ranks around Trump in an explicit way that they haven’t in the past, and spur them to take clearer positions on questions of creeping authoritarianism in the party.
There’s no evidence that Christie, who has extremely low favorability ratings among GOP voters at the moment, could himself become a viable candidate purely by going negative against Trump. But he could at least test a new theory of how to deal with the Trump problem and perhaps spark a more substantive debate in the party at a time when it’s showing an alarming trend toward authoritarianism. The odds that he succeeds might not be high, but it’s better than nothing.