New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie finds himself in an awkward situation as he mulls whether to offer any support to his party's tea-party Republican Senate nominee, Steve Lonegan, against his Democratic friend and off-and-on political ally, Cory Booker.
Lonegan, who cruised to victory in Tuesday's Republican primary, has a frosty relationship with Christie, dating back to his primary challenge to the governor in the 2009 campaign. Just this week, Lonegan earned a public scolding from Christie for his campaign's racially tinged tweet attacking Booker. "This is a governor who calls it like he sees it," said a source close to Christie. "When Steve Lonegan says something and reporters want the governor's reaction, he'll tell people what he thinks."
But if Christie fails to support his fellow Republican in the Senate race, he could take blowback from conservatives, already annoyed by his relationship with President Obama on hurricane recovery and his lack of interest in helping the party contest the vacant Senate seat.
Christie allies expect the governor to offer Lonegan a formal endorsement, but don't expect the governor to lift a finger to campaign or raise money for his party's nominee or lend him support in his long-shot campaign against Booker in the October special election. "It doesn't seem like that's something he would invest in," said one member of Christie's inner circle. "Resources are limited."
For their part, Lonegan's team doesn't seem to expect much from the state's most popular Republican in decades. "They're running their race and they have their issues. We're running our race and we have our issues, and they're just totally different," Lonegan aide Rick Shaftan said. "Steve has to make the case for his own campaign."
Christie could have other reasons for keeping his distance. There's no love lost between the two Republicans: During their 2009 primary fight, Lonegan accused Christie of "vapid double-talk" and vowed to "blow Chris Christie off the stage" in debates. While Lonegan supported Christie's general-election campaign against Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine later that year, he has never embraced Christie in the way that most Garden State Republicans have.
Christie's camp doesn't want to allow Lonegan—or anything else—to complicate his goal of notching an historic reelection win in November. Christie leads state Sen. Barbara Buono, his struggling Democratic opponent, by more than 25 points in the latest public polls. While both sides expect the race to tighten as Election Day draws closer, a resounding victory could bolster what promises to be his main selling point to Republicans in 2016: the ability to expand the presidential map into traditionally Democratic states.
"At the end of the day, Chris Christie is most concerned with his own margin of error," Monmouth University Polling Institute Director Patrick Murray said. "His primary strategy is to keep pushing this image of the only guy who can win a blue state and therefore can win the White House."
But that desire for a landslide reelection isn't the only way the Senate race factors into the 2016 calculus for Christie. He already angered some in the party with his decision to schedule the special election in October, and his recent dustup with Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., underscored that Christie faces challenges winning over the party's activist base. If Christie jumps into the presidential race, conservative primary opponents may contrast his limited role in Lonegan's Senate bid to his relationship with Booker, one of the most high-profile Democrats in the country. Christie's allies argue that an endorsement of Lonegan will fortify him from such criticism, and they point to his ability to get along with Booker as rare evidence of civility in today's partisan political world.
This article appears in the August 15, 2013, edition of NJ Daily.