SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie was set Thursday to take over as chairman of the Republican Governors Association, marking the charismatic chief executive's first foray into national politics on a platform he controls.
Christie campaigned extensively for 2012 GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney, and has occasionally stumped for Republican congressional candidates and helped them raise money. But heading the national organization will allow Christie, a possible 2016 presidential contender, to travel the country on behalf of the GOP's gubernatorial candidates, building relationships with political operatives and party activists outside New Jersey.
“The governors wanted him, because, just by being chairman, it brands the RGA in a very good way — what these folks stand for, about getting the job done,” veteran Republican operative Ron Kaufman told the Washington Examiner Wednesday at the RGA's annual fall conference.
The Republican governors are gathering to plot strategy ahead of the 2014 elections. Several Republicans who won competitive states in 2010, a wave election for the GOP, are on the ballot next year, and could face tough battles in states that supported President Obama in 2012.
Traditionally, serving as RGA chairman isn’t a role that lends itself to forging relationships with political players in Washington. The role is heavy on fundraising and personal campaigning for candidates, with the money raised used to bolster the campaigns of Republican governors and gubernatorial challengers.
But running the organization does provide Christie with a presence in the nation’s capital for the first time. And that, combined with Christie’s focus on the states with governors races — which can influence down-ticket congressional races — could help the New Jersey Republican to connect with congressional lawmakers, with whom he's has only passing relationships.
A recently trip to Capitol Hill to fete Jeff Chiesa, the man Christie appointed as a temporary replacement for the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg, gave Christie a chance to meet with the Senate Republican leadership team in a session described by one attendee as a productive, get-acquainted meeting.
“The interaction was good,” said Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt, the Republican conference vice chairman. “It was good for him because he didn't know us all that well, and good for us to get a sense of him in an off-the-record way.”
Christie’s interaction with House Republicans has been more limited.
The governor headlined events for the National Republican Congressional Committee, the House GOP’s campaign arm, and occasionally addressed members during private caucus meetings. But most House Republicans are not on Christie’s speed dial.
The governor does stay in regular touch with House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., a connection sources say dates back to Hurricane Sandy and Christie's effort to secure federal disaster relief funding from Washington. And, he is personally close with Rep. Ann Wagner, R-Mo., so much so that he endorsed her in a competitive GOP primary when she first ran for Congress in 2012 and traveled to Missouri to headline a fundraiser for her.
Wagner said she and Christie met in 2000, while each aided George W. Bush’s presidential campaign during the 2000 Florida recount. They remained friends. Wagner, however, said she was impressed that the governor was willing to publicly wade into a competitive GOP primary to endorse her. Christie could just as easily have declined to help her as he looked ahead to his own re-election race the following year.
“What I admired about him was that he was willing to get involved in a primary in a state, early, and came in and did a fantastic event for me,” Wagner said.