The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The campaign of Chris Christie’s dreams

Who needs to wake up to the political realities of 2024 — Trump loyalists, or the anti-Trump candidate?

(Illustration by Natalie Vineberg/The Washington Post; Carlin Stiehl for The Washington Post; iStock)
13 min

MANCHESTER, N.H. — Chris Christie has a dream. Not a fantasy, though some might call it that, but rather a waking ambition that he is pursuing with open eyes. “I am going to be the alternative to Donald Trump,” he says. “And when I am, I’m going to beat him.”

The former New Jersey governor made this declaration standing behind the counter at the Red Arrow Diner, a pilgrimage site for presidential hopefuls who seek to ingratiate themselves with New Hampshire voters. At the moment, Christie was ingratiating himself to a gaggle of reporters who were trailing Christie on his first visit to the Granite State (really, outside a green room) since he’d declared his candidacy a few weeks earlier.

Reporters lob their questions with notes of skepticism. Christie is unfazed, and with each answer, his dream campaign comes into sharper focus. It might go something like this: Christie tells “the truth” about Trump. About how the former president is willing to “lie to the American people to preserve his own ego.” About how Trump “has been a loser, now three times in a row: ’18, ’20, ’22.”

In his dream campaign, Christie prosecutes the case against the former president like the prosecutor he once was, and the MAGA base turns out not to be quite as Trump-loyal as people think. “I don’t buy this ‘Trump voter’ stuff,” Christie says. “He doesn’t own anyone.”

In his dream campaign, Christie and Trump end up on the same debate stage. (In Christie’s dream, Trump actually shows.) He’s ready to debate Trump, because he has debated him before: First, as a stand-in for Hillary Clinton in 2016; then again, in 2020, as a stand-in for Joe Biden, back when Christie was putting his life on the line to help Trump in his bid for a second term. (Christie landed in intensive care after catching covid, which he thinks he caught from Trump.) In his dream campaign, Republican primary voters give Christie credit for boosting Trump then and for breaking with Trump now. “They look at me and know that I’m somebody who was willing to give him a chance and work as hard as I could to make them as good a president as he could be, but he failed,” he says.

In his dream campaign, New Hampshire is the start of something. A pivotal faction of Christie voters turn out in South Carolina (“which has become a satellite of New Jersey”) and Nevada (where “we have lots of friendships and relationships”). “Then we’ll move on to Super Tuesday after that point,” Christie says, by which time Trump’s spell will be broken.

Here’s what’s obvious to many political watchers: Chris Christie’s dream campaign doesn’t have a prayer.

“There’s absolutely no appetite,” says Gunner Ramer, the political director of the Republican Accountability Project, a Never Trump outfit that conducted focus groups with college-educated Trump voters. “He reminds voters of the exact thing they do not want, which is being a part of the establishment.”

How does he remind them of that?

“They see him as someone who’s attacking Trump,” Ramer says. “That’s exactly what the establishment does.”

But what about Ronald Reagan and the John Birch Society? Christie’s dream campaign has historical precedent. Look back to the 1960s, as Christie does in his recent book, when William F. Buckley and Ronald Reagan purged the Birchers and their kooky fringe conspiracy theories from the GOP. Then, as now, there was a need “for Republicans to tell the truth to other Republicans about what’s out there and what’s obvious,” Christie said in an interview with The Washington Post.

“It’s a wishful analogy,” says Bill Kristol, editor at large of the Bulwark, a redoubt for Republicans turned off by Trump. For one thing, the Birchers weren’t fielding the Republican front-runner like the Trump wing of the party is doing now. “The oddball fringe ran the country for four years and has run the party for six or seven years,” Kristol says.

“I really wish Christie well — I’m glad he’s making the run,” Kristol adds. “I hope he endorses Biden after Trump wins the nomination.”

Christie won’t endorse Biden. He won’t run on a third-party ticket, either, like the one he says No Labels reached out to him about. (No Labels did not respond to a request for comment.) “I’ve always been a Republican,” Christie says, “and that’s the nomination I want.”

In the dream campaign, that nomination is still within reach — Republican voters just need to wake up.

Chris Sununu, New Hampshire’s Republican governor, dreams of a GOP field that tries to jostle the party’s base like Christie is trying to do. “My fantasy is that all the candidates speak in unison with the truth: Trump represents himself, not the party,” Sununu says. “They need to say that so the base gets the message loud and clear.”

“At some point, Trump’s base is going to start thinking about actually winning,” says William P. Barr, who served as Trump’s attorney general. “I also think they’re going to start noticing that the only people who lionize Trump are the people who actually haven’t really worked with and seen him in action.”

Most Republicans have not worked with Trump, of course. And most still like what they see from afar, despite his election failures in 2020 (and, by proxy, the 2022 midterms) — assuming they think Trump actually lost, which is no guarantee. Trump holds steady in recent national polls of Republican voters, with more than 50 percent of support. In New Hampshire, independent polls have been scarce but suggest that, although Trump’s support is slightly smaller, it’s still roughly double that of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, with Christie and others trailing in single digits.

“No matter what Chris Christie says — I apologize for my language — he has no f---ing shot to get the nomination,” says Joe Walsh, a former Republican Illinois congressman who mounted a doomed primary challenge to Trump in the 2020 election cycle. “None. He may believe he has a shot, but he really doesn’t.”

Walsh’s campaign was a protest of, as he puts it, the “stupid, Trumpy, dishonest, ugly, authoritarian, cruel thing.” It didn’t get much traction.

“I’ll never forget it: I stood in a room of 3,000 Republicans and said, ‘It’s wrong that we have a president who lies,’” he recalls. “Everybody booed me.”

New Hampshire is where dream campaigns sometimes go to die. It’s also where, months before any ballots are cast, they can seem more real than almost anywhere. On a Wednesday evening in late June, Christie came to a VFW hall in Derry to talk to Republican voters who share his dream of a GOP without Trump.

It was a coalition of people whom the Trump and Biden eras had rendered politically homeless. A “Rockefeller Republican” (“we’re pretty much extinct,” he said) who wanted to know how moderate voters fit into the present-day GOP. A middle-aged man in a New England Patriots polo who stood up to lament the “divisiveness in politics.” An older gentleman who demanded to know what has happened to the Republican Party. (“We know that Trump lied about the election, but why did so many of our fellow citizens believe that?”) A Christie-curious Democrat asking for his take on the foster-care system.

Christie, in a gray wool suit and red floral tie, stood at the center of the room, slowly orbiting a wooden stool. “People want to believe the president of the United States when he says something,” he told them. He praised George W. Bush’s ability to work with Ted Kennedy on education reform. He promised he’d bring civility to the White House, along with Republican values. He seemed intent on showing how he could be a father figure to this room of political orphans — those who hungered for a more stable, more adult role model at the head of the table.

Even among the relatively sympathetic town hall attendees in Derry, there were doubts about whether the former governor stood a real chance.

“Realistically, Christie’s odds of winning are: Pigs will fly, and hell may freeze over,” says Alex Rodriguez, a lifelong Republican who drove here from Melrose, Mass., and hasn’t voted for a GOP candidate since Marco Rubio in the 2016 primary. “But that’s not the point. The point is to have a discussion about the leader for the party and the existential threat to democracy.”

A discussion among whom? At gatherings like the one at the VFW in Derry, the possibility of a return to form for the Republican Party can seem, at least, plausible. Quinn Mitchell, a gangly 15-year-old from Walpole, N.H., rose to speak, and he pressed Christie on whether the self-selecting crowd members here at the VFW were really the ones the former governor needed to be impressing.

“In my opinion, you have already drawn in the small group of Republican voters who hate Trump as much as you do,” Mitchell began. “However, this message is not going to play into the larger electorate of Republican voters who are on the Trump hate wagon.” What did Christie plan to offer the many people who don’t hate Trump?

“First of all, I don’t hate Trump,” Christie replied. “I just don’t respect him.” He then suggested that Trump’s base of support might be softer than it appears. “He’s never had a campaign against him like the one you’re going to have now,” Christie said.

Did that satisfy Mitchell? “I do think he answered my question,” he told The Post afterward, “but …” Mitchell paused, searching for the right words. “It’s really hard to reach those types of voters.”

Christie went to the Red Arrow Diner the next morning. Perhaps it was a place he’d find some Trump loyalists to liberate.

“Ah, it’s good to be here,” Christie said to no one in particular as he landed on a stool at the counter with his wife, Mary Pat. He got oatmeal with bananas and brown sugar; she got eggs over easy and toast. “You would wonder why do I look like I look and she looks like she looks,” the famously corpulent Christie told their server, unprompted. “But you know, there’s no fairness in life.”

Only a few patrons had been at the counter when Christie arrived from another breakfast, back at his hotel, with potential supporters who had backed different non-Trump Republicans (Jeb Bush, Rubio, John Kasich) in 2016. They were outnumbered by the roughly dozen reporters who had squeezed into a semicircle around Christie.

“New Hampshire can be the state that sets out on the right course, and that’s why I’m here,” Christie told a local radio reporter. “I’m going to spend most of my time here talking to voters.”

A woman named Pam penetrated the media gaggle to tell him he’s her “favorite candidate.” (Pam later told The Post that she was visiting her father from out of state and voted for Biden, whom she still likes, even if she worries about his age.)

Christie finished his oatmeal and left by 11 a.m., speeding away to Boston to catch a flight to Washington. “One of the things I learned from the last time is that motion isn’t progress,” he told The Post. “You don’t have to be in New Hampshire or Iowa every day. Because after a while, there’s diminishing returns.”

The next morning, back in D.C., Christie did find some loyal Trump supporters — not in a diner, but in the ballroom of the Washington Hilton. He was scheduled to speak at the Faith and Freedom Coalition’s Road to Majority summit in Washington, along with most of the other GOP presidential candidates.

“We’ll have some people in that audience who agree with us and some people who don’t, but that’s the nature of a primary,” he said. “I’m ready for it.”

Christie took the stage late in the morning after Mark Robinson, the North Carolina lieutenant governor who had brought the audience to its feet when he announced that he was endorsing Trump for president. The thunderous applause gave way to polite claps as Christie replaced him behind the lectern.

“I thought this morning, ‘The most appropriate issue to discuss is the issue of character,’” Christie began.

A pair of 20-somethings in MAGA hats exited the ballroom.

Christie continued. Abraham Lincoln showed character in the face of the Confederacy, he said. Franklin D. Roosevelt showed character in the face of Hitler. Reagan, in the face of the Soviets. Then he turned to a recent president who, in Christie’s estimation, hadn’t shown such character.

“I’m running because he’s let us down,” Christie said of Trump. “He’s unwilling to take responsibility for any of the mistakes that were made, any of the faults that he has.”

A few boos.

“That is not leadership, everybody,” Christie said. “That is a failure of leadership.”

The boos were louder now, nearly drowning out his voice.

After Christie’s remarks, Billy and Brandy Walkowiak passed through the lobby, seeming a bit perplexed what the former governor thought he was doing. The Trump-loving couple from Gastonia, N.C., had thought Christie was talking about character to tee up to attack Biden — and couldn’t believe he’d land the punch on Trump instead.

“This was not the place for it,” Brandy said.

“I don’t know why he did that,” Billy said.

In Christie’s dream campaign, boos are just part of it. “Part of your job as a leader is not to tell them what they want to hear,” Christie told reporters afterward. “It’s to tell them what they need to hear.”