Four years ago, seven big-money donors and leading Republican activists from Iowa loaded into a private plane and headed to New Jersey for an urgent meeting with Chris Christie. Their message: Run, Chris, run.
The group from the lead-off caucus state failed in that mission to persuade the brash New Jersey governor to jump into the 2012 race for president. This time around, Christie’s White House ambitions no longer appear to be an issue. But those once-eager Iowans aren’t as keen to throw their support his way.
“It’s a brand new ballgame,” says donor Gary Kirke. “There’s a lot more people in the race, and a lot has happened since then.”
Of the seven who made the May 2011 trip to meet with Christie at the sprawling Drumthwacket governor’s mansion, Kirke is the most outspoken. Two others are undecided about who they’ll support in 2016, one doesn’t plan to back any candidate, while two remain loyal Christie supporters.
The change in passions is a reflection of how the still-early race for the Republican nomination is dramatically different from four years ago, when eventual GOP pick Mitt Romney limped out of a large but relatively little-known field of candidates.
This time, Christie is competing for support against a strong list of potential candidates who include former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and several members of the U.S. Senate, Florida’s Marco Rubio and Kentucky’s Rand Paul among them. The sense among some in Iowa is that Christie may have lost a unique opportunity in 2012, when the fight for dollars from establishment donors was far less intense.
“I think last time a lot of people looked at the field and saw holes in it,” said Craig Robinson, the former political director of the Republican Party of Iowa. “I think the other governors in the race really give him a hard go.”
Kirke said that four years ago, Christie looked to be a rising star, with bravado and personality backed by solid conservative credentials. Since then, Kirke’s opinion has changed. He pointed to Christie’s embrace of President Barack Obama in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy and to the George Washington Bridge scandal, which continues to hang over Christie.
“People just question, you know, he’s the CEO of the state,” said Kirke. “It makes you wonder about his leadership.”