Gary Kirke was so eager to see Chris Christie run for president in 2012 that he joined six other Iowa businessmen on a private jet ride to New Jersey in May 2011 to try to talk the governor into entering the race.
As Kirke assesses the emerging 2016 Republican primary field, he’s less convinced his once-preferred candidate remains his party’s best option, partly because of a Christie home-state scandal involving a traffic-clogged bridge.
Christie, 51, will travel to Iowa today, marking his first opportunity to try to allay Republican anxiety in the state that will cast the first votes in the 2016 race. The trip, along with a July 31 stop in New Hampshire, represents his most significant effort yet to return to the presidential arena following the George Washington Bridge controversy.
“If he’s the right guy and he can win, I’m for him,” said Kirke, who co-founded Kirke-Van Orsdel Inc. and is the founder of Kirke Financial Services LLC, which invests in, acquires and manages businesses, mostly in Iowa. “I’ll have to see the support that he gets in the next year.”
Skepticism about Christie’s prospects stems from multiple investigations still under way in New Jersey over politically motivated lane closures and traffic jams last September created by his administration.
The governor also will have to deal with party activists motivated by social issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage. He angered those voters in October when he ended a legal effort to stop gay marriages in New Jersey. A group called the Judicial Crisis Network is using a web video to highlight what it calls his “awful record on judicial appointments.”
His economic record also will be scrutinized. Unemployment in New Jersey remains above the U.S. average of 6.1 percent and is tied for the 12th-highest among the states. The jobless rate in May was 6.8 percent in May, down from 9.7 percent in February 2010, just after he took office.
The visit is his first since December 2011, when he campaigned for former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney ahead of the January 2012 Iowa caucuses.
“I like to think that the bridge is a tempest in a tea pot, but it hasn’t gone away,” said Jim Cownie, a Des Moines businessman. “It’s a major factor for how people view Governor Christie.”
Christie is a “serious guy” who has “shown a lot of bravery” in taking on public-sector unions in his state, he added. Still, his “bullying” reputation could be a drawback in the largely rural state, Cownie said.
“There is probably some anxiety about the president of the United States possessing that attribute,” he said. “I don’t know if he will get to the level of very, very serious candidate.”
Christie’s appearances are officially part of his responsibilities as chairman of the Republican Governors Association. He will travel by the side of Iowa Governor Terry Branstad, who is seeking a sixth term in November and is heavily favored in the race.
Branstad, 67, is unlikely to endorse any Republican presidential candidate -- at least not until much closer to his state’s caucuses in early 2016. In the interim, he will be aggressively courted by prospective candidates seeking access to his state political operation.
Branstad and Christie are to attend two fundraisers -- one for the governor’s re-election and one for the RGA -- and make a campaign appearance where they’ll take questions. Christie also will headline a fundraiser for Iowa House Speaker Kraig Paulsen.
In an interview, Branstad predicted the George Washington Bridge wouldn’t seriously hurt Christie’s prospects.
“Traffic jams aren’t a big issue in Iowa,” he said. “Most Iowans know that New Jersey politics is pretty nasty and mean.”
If he does run, Branstad said Christie could do well, if he spends enough time in Iowa.
“He’s really good at ‘retail’ politics,” he said. “He’s good on his feet.”
Christie was viewed favorably by 50 percent of Iowa Republican voters surveyed in a NBC News/Marist poll released today, lower than the 66 percent received by U.S. Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, 63 percent for former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and 57 percent for U.S. Senator Marco Rubio of Florida.
An Iowa Poll taken by the Des Moines Register newspaper in late May found party primary voters -- a sample closer to caucus participants -- were most likely to pick Christie and Bush as the candidates with the best chances of beating a Democratic nominee. Nineteen percent of Iowa’s 2014 primary voters picked Christie, while 16 percent picked Bush and 13 percent picked Paul and Huckabee.
“The door is not shut on Christie,” said J. Ann Selzer, who oversees the Iowa Poll and polling for Bloomberg.
In an interview at CNBC’s Institutional Investor Delivering Alpha conference yesterday, Christie said a decision about a White House bid would come late this year or early next year.
“I certainly am going to consider it, but whether I do it or not is something I honestly don’t know yet,” he said.