Chris Christie was all smiles at the New Hampshire Secretary of State’s office Thursday as he formally filed the paperwork to place his name on the First in the Nation ballot.
“We’re from New Jersey, we use cash,” the former Garden State governor told Secretary Dave Scanlan. “And I promise it’s not from Bob Menendez’s jacket.”
Christie followed up with an hour of questions from the local press, throwing out one-liners like an Atlantic City casino comic, most with his “old friend” Donald Trump as the punchline.
“Guys from New Jersey are used to dealing with obnoxious blowhards from New York,” Christie said.
But is he used to dealing with a governor like Chris Sununu?
Like Christie, Sununu has advocated for his party to pick a nominee other than Trump. And he has been clear that stopping Trump means consolidating the non-Trump vote behind a single candidate. And while he may like Christie, Sununu isn’t a sentimental guy. If that single candidate isn’t Christie, Sununu will do what he needs to do.
Sununu told NHJournal on Thursday he feels good about the winnowing process, and he believes the field will be significantly smaller by the time the First in the Nation primary rolls around.
“There have been stories of some candidates’ PACs pulling money back saying, ‘Look, maybe this isn’t going to work.’ That’s unfortunate for those candidates, but a very positive move in terms of narrowing the field,” Sununu said. (The head of the super PAC backing Tim Scott recently made similar comments announcing the cancellation of a slate of TV ads.)
“There are going to be a lot of folks on the ballot in New Hampshire. That’s fine. It’s all about getting it down to one or two candidates before Super Tuesday,” Sununu said.
Christie has made no secret of his New Hampshire-centric strategy. “I’m spending most of my time here. One — you’re first. You gotta win, and you’ve got to do well somewhere early,” Christie said. “It’s always been my evaluation that an open primary, like the one you have here, is the fairest way to go. You’ll see me here every week, multiple days a week, between now and when the Secretary sets the primary date.”
An open primary means unaffiliated voters can vote in the GOP primary, not just registered Republicans. And the Christie campaign has been touting his success in a new NHJournal/co-efficient poll of swing voters in the Granite State. In that survey of voters who’ve recently participated in both a GOP and Democratic presidential primary, Christie came in second at 22 percent, on the coattails of former President Donald Trump at 27 percent.
But polling also shows Christie is the most unpopular candidate in the field among repeat GOP primary voters, the party’s traditional base.
“Chris Christie is the favorite Republican primary candidate for people who don’t vote in Republican primaries,” one GOP operative quipped.
Asked by NHJournal about his struggles with the GOP base and his plan to reach them, Christie said it was all about Trump.
“I’m the only one going after Donald Trump, who’s been our nominee the last two times. So why would you be surprised that some of those [GOP base] voters would be upset? A lot of people don’t want to hear the truth about him.”
And how does Christie convince them to accept that?
“It’s going to take time for some of those voters to absorb the truth and what it means to our party– he will lose to Joe Biden. But also what it means to our country if either one of them becomes president,” Christie said. “They are going to start voting now. If you’re a [Republican base] voter, the thing you want more than anything else is a Republican president. Trump is not going to be that. He’s been a loser since he walked into the White House.”
Still, being the most vocal anti-Trump candidate could make it hard for Christie to be a winner. And while his polling in New Hampshire is stronger than in any other state, he is still behind both Nikki Haley and Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Is there a danger that Christie ends up being a one-state wonder who does well in New Hampshire but can’t compete anywhere else? Could he wind up helping Trump win by taking votes from other non-Trump candidates with broader appeal?
“I’ve had conversations with Chris about that,” Sununu said. “About what ground game he’s putting in other states, how he plans to move his numbers there, make a more significant impact. And obviously, this goes for any candidate — it can’t just be Iowa or just New Hampshire. You have to have a game and a message that will resonate in those other early states that lead into Super Tuesday. If not, you’re just a one-state show… You have to have a message that is a little more universal, that crosses over to at least two or three of the early states.”
Sununu says he has had similar conversations with other candidates as well.
Could Sununu help that happen with a well-timed endorsement?
“I think the third debate is going to be very impactful because there could be just four or five people on the stage. That gives all those candidates much more time to interact with each other, much more time to get into another level of detail on policy positions and differentiation,” Sununu said.
“So, I’ll probably look at a potential endorsement sometime after the third debate. And as soon as I know, everyone else will know. As I’ve always said, I’ll campaign as hard as I can for that individual. But in New Hampshire, endorsements only mean so much. Our citizens are smart, they’re active voters, they have their own opinions, and they’re going to act accordingly.”
Christie has yet to qualify for the November 8 NBC News debate in Maimi, but he assured reporters Thursday that he’ll make the stage.
“I will qualify, and I will be there.”
Four candidates — DeSantis, Haley, Vivek Ramaswamy, and Trump — have qualified, though Trump has announced he won’t participate. And Ramaswamy has raised doubts about whether he will appear as well. Christie and Mike Pence have passed the four percent polling threshold, but neither has hit the mark of at least 70,000 campaign donors, including at least 200 donors from 20 states.
Sununu says he’s not worried about having candidates who don’t make the debate stage appear on the New Hampshire ballot.
“You’re going to see candidates who stay in the race through New Hampshire but who really are completely non-factors. They’ll get like zero percent of the vote or a couple of hundred votes here or there,” Sununu said. “We’ve got to make sure that 98 or 99 percent of the votes go to the top three, four or five candidates at most.”
And if candidates who can’t win stay in the race and drain votes away from viable non-Trump options, is Sununu prepared to play enforcer?
“Politically, I’m probably more of a body check guy,” Sununu said with a laugh, using a hockey metaphor. “I don’t mind nudging folks out when I have to, right?
And if they don’t take the hint?
“We’ll take the gloves off.”