Can Chris Christie stop Trump?
In 1965, William F. Buckley Jr. decided to avenge the loss of Barry Goldwater to Lyndon B. Johnson in the 1964 presidential election by running for mayor of New York. His goal was to restore attention to conservatism as he understood it, and take votes from Republican John Lindsay, who he thought insufficiently principled.
Some called it a vanity project. (He finished a distant third with 13.36%, with Lindsay winning and Democrat Abe Beame coming in a close second.)
He never expected to win. And in fact, when asked what he’d do if he did, he said, “Demand a recount.”
Though it got Buckley some national attention, it was hardly a successful project. If anything, his comparatively progressive campaign platform ended up helping Lindsay, and taking votes away from Beame.
I have to wonder if former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s reported entry into the race, expected next Tuesday according to an Axios scoop, is in some ways informed by the Buckley model — with goals that are loftier than winning.
How else to explain the decision by the most unpopular Republican contender in an already crowded field?
According to a brand-new Monmouth poll, Christie’s favorability is heavily underwater, with a 21% favorable rating and a 47% unfavorable rating. I can’t imagine Tuesday’s headline at Insider NJ — “Christie Radiates Negative Vibes with GOP Vote” — is the kind of pre-coverage he was hoping for as he readied his announcement.
But maybe winning isn’t the point for Christie, whose 2016 bid ended unceremoniously, with the governor dropping out in February after finishing 6th in the New Hampshire primary.
Maybe the point is to remind voters what conservatism sounds like. Maybe the point is to drag the Republican Party out of the culture wars and back to fiscal policies that appeal to moderates and independents. Maybe the point, as his team says, is to wake up America’s “exhausted majority.”
And most importantly, maybe the point is to do what no Republican has successfully done before — stop Donald Trump.
It’s a heavy lift, but with many Republicans secretly and not so secretly hoping for a deus-ex-machina event to knock the former president out of the race, Christie might just be a proverbial asteroid hurtling toward Trump.
His team seems to have hinted at this, telling Axios that he’s actively aiming to engage Trump and is happy to punch him in the nose. I talked to a Republican strategist, Alice Stewart, who ran comms for Ted Cruz’s 2016 presidential campaign, who also acknowledged this possibility: “Gov. Christie will bring an unfiltered, unapologetic voice to the race and take it directly to Trump. It’s too early to say what his chances are, but a steady drumbeat on Trump, along with Trump’s pending legal issues, will certainly keep him off message, and create space for other candidates to get to the inside lane.”
Indeed, Christie may be the perfect foil. It would, after all, take someone with nothing to lose to be most effective against Trump. If any Republican is actually concerned with winning, they’ll be too afraid to lose MAGA voters by swinging too hard at him.
Case in point: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, his closest competitor, has had a light touch, often whiffing at Trump’s antics without naming him. The others — former Ambassador Nikki Haley, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson and Vivek Ramaswamy — haven’t forcefully taken him on directly either.
Christie’s brash and loud-mouthed, as we’ve all come to know. Despite eventually supporting Trump in 2016, he’s pulled no punches recently, calling Trump a “coward” and a “puppet of Putin,” slamming his reaction to the E. Jean Carroll sexual abuse verdict, warning voters off his 2024 reelection, and pledging never to support him again. It’s hard to walk back from that, and presumably Christie doesn’t plan to.
It’s not a fool-proof plan, of course. Remember 2016, when 16 other Republican candidates couldn’t figure out the secret sauce to take down the surging businessman/reality star, who ran as unconventional a campaign as anyone had ever seen.
And in 2020, three Republicans — former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld, former Illinois Rep. Joe Walsh and former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford — had protest bids, winning a paltry 3.5% of the primary vote — combined.
But Christie may be uniquely suited for the job this year, and if he plans, as I suspect, to take on an “enforcer” role in primaries — wherein roughing up Trump is more important than scoring actual goals or winning — he might just be able to do what those 19 other Republican candidates couldn’t: knock Trump out once and for all.
S.E. Cupp is the host of "S.E. Cupp Unfiltered" on CNN.
Comment threads are monitored for 48 hours after publication and then closed.