SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- As New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie eyes a 2016 presidential bid and sets out to define a new generation of Republican leaders, he has in his corner an influential, battle-tested party sage who could prove valuable: Haley Barbour.
Christie refused to entertain talk of 2016 during the recent Republican Governors Association conference, insisting that he was focused exclusively on his new job as RGA chairman and electing GOP state executives in 2014. And Barbour, a former Mississippi governor, certainly isn't picking sides in the race a full two years before the Republican presidential primaries. But GOP insiders familiar with their relationship said it is close and genuine, personal and professional.
“Haley and Christie are close friends,” one knowledgeable Republican operative told the Washington Examiner. “Haley likes the way he governs and they bonded over disaster management. I think there is a high level of trust and friendship there for both.”
The two cocksure Republicans forged a friendship in 2009, when Christie was in an uphill battle to unseat wealthy Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine. The RGA hesitated to invest in Christie. New Jersey is a blue state with a history of tricking Republicans into spending millions on supposedly winnable contests only to emerge as big losers. Besides, the Virginia governor's race was the surer bet.
But then the man leading the RGA, South Carolina Gov. Mark Stanford, was caught up in a personal scandal and forced to turn over the reins of the organization. Enter Barbour.
Barbour helped the GOP win a New Jersey gubernatorial race in 1993 when he was Republican National Committee chairman, so he was predisposed to believe that a Garden State victory was possible. Barbour also had a great deal of confidence in the GOP candidate there, Christie.
New Jersey election law barred the RGA and the Christie campaign from coordinating, so Barbour, 66, and Christie, 51, didn't talk much during the campaign. Afterward, though, their relationship grew closer and their families got to know each other. Christie came to rely on Barbour's advice and counsel, Republican sources said. And in Christie's penchant for confrontation and aggressive leadership, Barbour found a kindred spirit.
“Christie’s got a good story for the [other Republicans] to recognize, and determine that they can do that, too, in their state. That would be so good for us,” Barbour told the Examiner. “Christie is a good leader for this particular time, because of how he was re-elected, because of his record, because he’s got a lot of media attention.”
“People feel like they know Chris Christie,” Barbour added. “And they like him.”
Christie, as expected, was re-elected in a landslide in November. He captured 61 percent of the vote by appealing to crucial voting blocs that have been drifting away from the Republican Party in recent years, including women and Hispanics.
Christie's historic performance this year, however, was very different from that first race in which he got to know Barbour. Christie beat Corzine 49 percent to 45 percent, but only after the RGA stepped in with a barrage of TV attack ads against an independent candidate who was cutting into Christie's support.
Observers of the race regard those attacks as crucial to Christie’s victory. Mike DuHaime, among the governor’s top political advisors, said Barbour played a significant role in Christie’s success that year.
“Gov. Barbour and the RGA were very supportive in 2009 when many others did not think Gov. Christie could win,” DuHaime said.
Barbour and Christie are of different generations and came of age politically in states that couldn’t have been further apart by the time each was elected governor. But the states have much in common, too, and that could help explain the alignment of two brash politicians.
By the time Barbour became governor in 2004, Mississippi was a conservative state and fertile ground for Republicans. But when Barbour entered politics in the 1960s, Mississippi was a Democratic bastion and electing Republicans required a certain toughness for which Barbour would become known as he climbed party ranks to become RNC chairman in 1993. That was the same year the GOP took control of Congress for the first time in 40 years.
Christie, a pragmatic conservative, has been similarly aggressive while navigating the machine-dominated liberal politics of New Jersey, a state that delivered 58 percent of the vote to President Obama in 2012 and rarely elects Republicans to statewide office. As governor, both led their states out of the devastation caused by national disasters. Hurricane Katrina hit Mississippi in 2005, only months after Barbour entered office. Hurricane Sandy tore through New Jersey last October.
This shared experience has strengthened their bond.
“They see governing in a similar fashion,” said RGA Finance Chairman Fred Malek, a longtime GOP operative who served in that capacity during Christie’s 2009 campaign. “They believe in direct, honest [communication] rather than ambiguity and they believe that politics is art of inclusion — not exclusion. Both have practiced that as governors.”