By Maddie Hanna, The Philadelphia Inquirer (MCT)
TRENTON, N.J. — As Republican governors across the country claimed wins Tuesday, so did New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
The national face of the effort to elect Republican governors, Christie helped raise $106 million and visited at least 35 states as chairman of the Republican Governors Association. The role allowed him to tout his party’s successes — victories in blue states, swing states, and a net gain of two governor’s seats — during a blitz of morning-show appearances Wednesday.
He also fielded questions about his political ambitions, saying on NBC’s Today that he had not decided on a 2016 presidential bid, but he and his wife, Mary Pat, would “have to start talking about that in earnest.”
Christie was “instrumental” in growing the ranks of Republican governors from 29 to 31, Phil Cox, executive director of the RGA, said in a briefing Wednesday.
Citing Christie’s record fundraising haul, which enabled the RGA to spend $130 million on the elections, and “tireless” campaigning, Cox said, “he certainly has raised the bar.”
Former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour said that while he had raised significant money as RGA chairman in 2010, Christie “blew by me like I was Maybellene at the top of the hill,” referring to a Chuck Berry song.
Barbour said 2014 was challenging, given that Christie had to defend 22 of the 29 seats held by Republican governors.
“It is a blessing to the RGA that Christie and his team were able to raise so much,” Barbour said.
Not all were as generous in their assessment of Christie’s impact. “All these races at the end of the day are individual races,” said Rick Wilson, a Florida-based Republican strategist.
Wilson said Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker — a potential 2016 rival of Christie’s, who at one point suggested he needed more money from the RGA — “won because he busted his tail on the ground. (Florida Gov.) Rick Scott won because he spent $100 million, a lot of which he raised outside of the RGA track.”
The RGA said it poured $19 million, its largest-ever expenditure in a state race, into Scott’s tight victory over Democrat Charlie Crist in Florida, where Christie made seven trips to campaign for Scott.
Christie “deserves some credit for that,” Wilson said. But “when it comes time for voters to make decisions in 2016, they’re probably not going to say, ‘How did he do as RGA chairman?’
Christie may benefit in other ways from the election wins, analysts said.
“The big plus for Christie is that he built up chits with new GOP governors whose states will have loads of delegates to the 2016 GOP convention,” said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. “Governors matter in nomination battles as long as the candidate they endorse is a real contender.”
Sabato added that Christie’s presidential chances are still hindered by his image as a moderate, “and his new friends in statehouses can’t help him much there.”
States won by Republicans where the RGA spent heavily included Florida, Michigan ($14 million), Massachusetts ($11 million), Illinois ($9 million) and Wisconsin ($8 million). Wilson said Walker’s win in Wisconsin may help quell “the perception, true or not, that (Christie) was playing politics with one of his 2016 rivals.”
Republicans won competitive races in Kansas and Georgia, where the RGA spent $5 million each. And in the presidential swing state of Ohio, where the RGA spent $4 million, Republican Gov. John Kasich won re-election in a landslide.
Maryland had elected only one Republican since the 1970s, but the party’s candidate, Larry Hogan, pulled off a win Tuesday.
In his acceptance speech Tuesday, Hogan thanked “Governor Christie for bringing the cavalry from New Jersey.” Christie decided to put the RGA in debt to spend $1.5 million on Hogan’s race, Cox said.
Not every race that received substantial RGA resources paid off: In Connecticut, Democratic Gov. Dannel Malloy managed a win, despite the RGA spending $7 million on Republican Tom Foley’s behalf. Christie made six trips to Connecticut for Foley — exceeded only by his trips to Illinois, Florida and Pennsylvania, where Gov. Tom Corbett’s losing campaign was fueled by $7 million from the RGA.
Cox said Democrats and labor unions also spent big in the elections.
In the early presidential nominating state of New Hampshire, which Christie visited five times, Republican Walt Havenstein lost to Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan.
Some political observers saw Christie’s early presence in the state, where he endorsed Havenstein in a contested Republican primary in June, as geared more toward laying groundwork for a 2016 race than a victory for Havenstein, who trailed Hassan in polls.
But more recently, the race narrowed. By keeping Havenstein competitive, Christie helped Republicans make gains in the state legislature, said Fergus Cullen, a former New Hampshire Republican party chair.
“People will notice that,” Cullen said.
One state where the sitting governor didn’t need Christie’s help down the stretch was Iowa, where Gov. Terry Branstad cruised to an easy re-election.
Yet Christie visited Iowa, which hosts the first presidential caucus, four times in recent months.
“That was above what the RGA chairman normally would do and can’t be seen as a perfunctory effort,” said David Oman, who served as Iowa co-chair of Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign.
Oman, a former chief of staff to Branstad, said he expected Branstad to stay neutral in the 2016 race, as he has in the past. But Branstad “may have passed along a little advice to his colleague,” he said.
In addition to meeting party leaders and donors in key presidential states, Christie’s RGA travel also boosted a possible presidential bid by broadening his knowledge base, Barbour said.
“What works in New Jersey may not work in New Mexico,” he said. “You get an issue exposure and perspective that you would not have just by being governor of your home state.”
Photo: Peter Stevens via Flickr