Rand Paul vs. Chris Christie: A New Hampshire cage match
Patrick Hynes, Politico
August 8, 2013
It’s never too early to speculate about presidential politics to this Granite Stater’s way of thinking. And the feud between New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul has given us a sneak preview into what the 2016 Republican presidential primary might look like. How would such a rivalry shake out in the first-in-the-nation primary in New Hampshire?
Paul and Christie lead the field among named candidates in the Granite State according to a recent poll conducted by New England College on behalf of the NH Journal, a news site I co-own and help operate. Senator Paul earned 19 percent of the vote, while Gov. Christie earned 17.5 percent. A huge share of the primary electorate in this July poll — 20 percent — was undecided, however. So, although the field is still wide open, both Paul and Christie start with strong bases of support and should be considered co-front-runners, presuming they both seek the Oval Office in 2016.
What’s more, the friction between the so-called establishment and the grass roots, which the Paul-Christie feud personifies, is especially coarse in New Hampshire these days. The next Republican primary will kick off against a backdrop of legitimate beefs, bruised egos and long-standing grudges between two groups of Granite State Republicans, who actually question whether members of the other side are of the party at all. It’s almost the perfect arena for these two politicians to battle it out.
On the specific cause of the feud, National Security Agency spying, the point would have to go to Sen. Paul. This is just my gut; I don’t have any data to back it up. But New Hampshire never fell under the spell of the “war on terror.” Granite Staters never cottoned to George W. Bush, neither as a candidate nor as president, and the Iraq War was always unpopular here. So while Gov. Christie might have perfectly reasonable arguments for why the government should track our personal communications, he’ll be fighting a built-in New Hampshire distrust of big government. There’s a reason “live free or die” is the state motto.
Now, onto the nuts and bolts of the coming campaign.
Issues: It neither begins nor ends with NSA snooping. Senator Paul’s issue profile is likely to be a considerable strength for him. As a purist, he’s free from the usual catalogue of votes that scuff up a candidate’s image. He’s very much the real deal. That’s not to say Gov. Christie is some typical politician who will be easily smeared. But running a big, diverse state like New Jersey requires compromise, and those compromises make devastating TV ads. Advantage: Paul.
Grass roots: It’s extremely likely that Paul’s grass-roots strength will overwhelm a Christie field operation, as well as those of all other probable contenders. In addition to inheriting his father’s grass-roots legacy, Paul will also benefit from the Free State movement in New Hampshire, which has blended with, though is not completely synonymous with, a very vocal tea party movement. The resulting amalgamation refers to itself loosely as “liberty Republicans” and they are very active, highly motivated and belligerently anti-establishment. They can also be extremely difficult to get along with and their belligerence will turn off some Republican voters. Nevertheless, expect that grass-roots strength in New Hampshire to give Paul a significant leg up. Advantage: Paul.
Mass appeal: But which candidate will have broader appeal? This appears to be an area of strength for Christie — by a lot. This Republican governor is likely to win reelection in bright blue New Jersey in a walk, a feat that is achievable only if he is comfortable reaching out to a broad array of voters and straying from the base. Christie’s willingness to hit the trail and hash it out with voters, even those who disagree with him, will also be a tremendous asset in New Hampshire, a state that prides itself on getting to know, and I mean really know, the candidates. This is important because former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will have a nearly uncontested primary, provided she runs, which means that undeclared voters, who can vote in either primary in New Hampshire, are likely to pull a Republican ballot. Advantage: Christie.
Multicandidate field: Let’s be honest: Paul and Christie will not be the only candidates in the mix. How are the other prospective candidates likely to affect the outcome of this rivalry? In virtually every primary I have experienced, there has been a secondary contest between conservatives to be the consensus insurgent candidate against the establishment choice (in 2012, it was Rick Santorum vs. Newt Gingrich; in 2008, it was Mitt Romney, who was running to the right of John McCain/Rudy Giuliani vs. Mike Huckabee and Fred Thompson). But rarely has a consensus emerged. More often, this play-within-the-play prohibits any one insurgent from emerging. An insurgent by instinct, Paul is more likely going to have to deal with this dynamic than Christie, who may find himself vying for the establishment throne with more mainstream candidates like Sen. Marco Rubio and Gov. Bobby Jindal. That could pose problems for Paul, as each of the 2016 prospects will be showcasing his right-wing bona fides and self-consciously endeavoring to eat into the Kentucky senator’s base of support. Advantage: Christie.
Intangibles: There’s something about Chris Christie, isn’t there? He’s larger than life and often very entertaining. But George W. Bush’s Texas swagger annoyed reserved Granite Staters, and it’s possible that Christie’s boisterous New Jersey attitude will irritate just enough New Hampshire voters to cost him at the ballot box. Meanwhile, Paul is surprisingly unassuming and soft-spoken — two traits that seem at odds with his passion and principles, but might well mirror the personality traits of regular folks here. Advantage: Paul.
So who would win the New Hampshire presidential primary if both Paul and Christie were to run in 2016? With all the obligatory caveats (we don’t know who else would be running, issues change, scandals can erupt, etc.), I would give a slight advantage to Rand Paul.
Patrick Hynes is president of Hynes Communications. He was an adviser to the two past Republican presidential nominees, Sen. John McCain and Gov. Mitt Romney.