Chris Christie's first big national test: 2014

Christie's next political campaign (no, not that one) starts today

Chris Christie
(Image credit: (AP Photo/Mel Evans))

Chris Christie is widely expected to be preparing for a 2016 White House bid. And to that end, his role as chairman of the Republican Governors Association — a position he will assume Thursday — will be a boon to his presumed campaign.

As chairman, he'll travel the country forging ties with donors, activists, and politicians, all while raising both his profile and fundraising power. Essentially, the gig is a presidential campaign lite.

On a more abstract level, though, Christie's stewardship of the RGA will serve as a test of his pragmatic message and ability to manage a national campaign. With three dozen governor's races next year, Christie will leave a big footprint across the map, with his success, or failure, a precursor to the larger campaign looming for him in 2016.

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There are 36 gubernatorial elections slated for next year, including contests in the early primary election states of Iowa, South Carolina, and Florida. Republicans, thanks to their 2010 wave election, have 22 states to defend, meaning they have much more to lose than do Democrats next year.

That's where Christie comes in. Though the RGA is often viewed as something of a ceremonial launching pad for presidential campaigns — Mitt Romney and Rick Perry headed the RGA ahead of their presidential campaigns, and potential candidate Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal is the outgoing chairman — the organization's stated primary goal is helping to elect Republicans to the top executive posts nationwide.

Christie will oversee a $150 million midterm budget, and he'll travel the country raising money for, and touting the candidacies of, his fellow governors. In essence, he'll be both a major financial booster and a prominent face of campaigns nationwide.

If Republicans perform swimmingly under Christie's guidance, it will serve as "a gleaming resume point heading into the 2016 presidential cycle," wrote CNN's Peter Hamby, "which begins in earnest the moment polls close next November."

A spectacular failure, on the other hand — or even a more moderate one — would reflect poorly on Christie's national viability, and it could sour his relationship with party members outside New Jersey. Consider how failed Virginia gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli blamed not his own problems, but Jindal, for his loss this year.

"Bobby Jindal and his political team totally blew it," one advisor griped to the Daily Caller, adding that his "presidential campaign is over."

The gig will also give Christie a prominent platform to test his outside-the-Beltway message of conservative pragmatism. Christie won reelection with a resounding 22 point margin by picking up the support of two-thirds of independents. But that was in one state, and there are questions, bolstered by polling, about whether his message will play well outside the Northeast.

The job will also give Christie a chance to shape the national party's message (remember that Republican rebrand?) in his own image. Already, Christie and the other RGA members have begun to distance themselves from congressional Republicans and their record-low approval rating in an attempt to shed the "party of 'no'" moniker.

"Our frustration is the Washington brand, not the Republican brand," Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin told the Newark Star-Ledger.

Christie's performance at the helm of the RGA will not alone make or break his 2016 aspirations. But it will at least give him a chance to ingratiate himself to a wider audience of Republicans, and prove whether he can successfully run a campaign in not one state, but 50.

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