New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is standing by his new best friend Donald Trump, but not exactly in the way he might have hoped.
After blasting the “crazies” who opposed the appointment of a Muslim judge in 2011 because of his religion, Christie spent election day in New Jersey Tuesday delicately trying to parry Trump’s claim that an Hispanic judge presiding over the Trump University lawsuit must recuse himself because of his ethnicity presents a conflict of interest.
Christie repeatedly declined to talk about the judge or the case specifically. But he did offer a defense. “I know Donald Trump. I’ve known Donald Trump for fourteen years,” he told reporters instead. “Donald Trump is not a racist. The allegations that he is are absolutely contrary to every experience that I’ve had with him over the last fourteen years.”
It was not exactly the end to the Republican campaign that Christie had envisioned. In fact, Christie’s support for Trump, who was effectively running unopposed in the state’s primary, may not ultimately translate into widespread Republican support in the Garden State this fall. Christie’s approval ratings dropped to just 26% after his endorsement of Donald Trump, a historic low for the New Jersey Governor, and 34% of New Jersey Republicans have an unfavorable view of him. Christie told reporters that he paid no attention to the polls.
Trump would likely have carried the New Jersey primary by a huge margin even if his opponents hadn’t dropped out of the race, since the most recent polls from early May had him leading in the state by about 55 points. But Christie isn’t necessarily an asset for Trump in his home state. According to a Monmouth poll from early May, only 15% of New Jersey Republicans say picking Chris Christie as his running mate would help Trump win the election, and 41% said it might hurt him.
Former Republican New Jersey Governor Christine Whitman says she’s dismayed by Christie’s endorsement of Trump, especially given his loud condemnation earlier in the primary. “I’m disappointed with it because I thought a lot of what he said about criticizing Donald Trump and his fitness for the presidency was spot on, and I thought the fact that he made the pivot so quickly was disturbing,” she said.
“I think Donald Trump is a danger to the country, to democracy. He’s a bully and he demeans people,” she continued, calling Trump’s attacks on Judge Gonzalo Curiel “outrageous.”
But other Republicans say that Christie’s infrastructure within the state will help Trump, regardless of the governor’s approval ratings. “With Governor Christie, you get the benefit of his full apparatus pulling your way, so it’s undoubtedly helpful to Donald Trump today,” says State Senator Joe Kyrillos, former chair of the NJ Republican State Committee. Senator Kyrillos supported Jeb Bush, and won’t confirm how he plans to vote on Tuesday. “I’m still getting used to the new world,” he says.
Most other high-level Republicans in the state are being conspicuously silent about Trump and Christie, even in the hours leading up to the NJ Primary. Numerous calls and emails to state GOP Chairman Sam Raia, Republican governor of Atlantic City Don Guardian, the Republican Club of Fort Lee, and at least three Republican state senators went unanswered.
Whitman says she’s not surprised that Republican leadership is reluctant to speak out against Christie or Trump. The Governor of New Jersey has more constitutional power than other Governors, and Christie has a reputation for seeking revenge against politicians who publicly criticize him. The Bridgegate scandal, in which staff in Christie’s office allegedly ordered two traffic lanes leading to the George Washington Bridge to close, was rumored to be retribution for the mayor of Fort Lee’s failure to endorse him for Governor. Christie has denied any role in the decision to close the bridge.
“The governor still has a lot of power,” Whitman says. “And not unlike Donald Trump, he will exact retribution if you’re trying to undermine him. It’s just not worth it at this point.”
But reticence and acceptance are not the same thing. And Whitman says she thinks high-level New Jersey Republicans are concerned about what a Trump nomination means for the rest of the GOP ticket. “People are worried, they’re worried about what it’s gonna mean down ballot,” she says. “Right now, they’re trying not to talk about it too much.”