By Art Gallagher
Prominent New Jersey Republicans seem to finally be moving out of Governor Chris Christie’s shadow.
This afternoon The Star Ledger reported that Monmouth County State Senator Joe Kyrillos was among the 15 or so New Jersey Republicans who met with former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, a top rival of Christie’s for the 2016 GOP Presidential nomination, last week at a dinner hosted by Lawrence E. Bathgate. Bathgate, an Ocean County attorney, is one of the top Republican fundraisers in the nation. Also attending the dinner held at the Union Club in Manhattan was Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr, according to The Record’s Charles Stile, who first reported the event.
Such potential defections from the Christie camp were unthinkable just 15 months ago. Christie’s attempt at ousting Kean as Senate Minority Leader immediately following his 2013 re-election, and the resulting fallout as Kean, Jr’s father, the former Governor, went national in criticizing Christie can explain the younger Kean’s flirtation with the Bush campaign.
But Kyrillos being anything other than solidly in Christie’s corner is big news. Their relationship was personal before it was political. Christie introduced Kyrillos to his wife Susan. He swore Christie into his first elected office, Morris County Freeholder. Kyrillos was the Chairman of the Christie for Governor campaign in 2009.
There have been signs that the Christie-Kyrillos relationship is strained for months, but the senator has been careful not to let a rift show in public, until now.
Brian Nelson, an attorney at Archer-Greiner and a close Kyrillos ally was also at the dinner. Nelson said there were several other New Jersey Republicans present who he declined to name. “I’ve already committed to Bush’s Leadership and Super PAC,” said Nelson, who was on Christie’s 2009 transition team and was appointed to the board of the New Jersey Economic Development Authority by Christie, a position he has since given up. “Jeb Bush has the best shot of those in the mix to be elected in 2016,” Nelson said.
Nelson noted that he is not speaking for Kyrillos but emphasized that the senator’s relationship with Bush goes back over a decade to when the he was Chairman of the NJ GOP and Nelson was the Executive Director of the State Party.
Kyrillos has yet to respond to a call for comment.
These early defections on the part of Bathgate (who publicly referred to Christie’s Superstorm Sandy rebuilding efforts in Ocean County as “stupid,” wasteful, and a violation of core Republican principals) and Nelson, both prominent Republican fundraisers, are not good for Christie’s presidential prospects. The potential defections of Kean, Jr and Kyrillos may signal that Christie is a lame duck governor without a veto-proof grip on the agenda in Trenton.
With Christie’s New Jersey poll numbers tumbling and his extensive out of state travel as an unannounced presidential candidate, more New Jersey Republicans may start asserting their independence from the Governor to whom they have heretofore acted as though they had vowed obedience. Kean and Kyrillos distancing themselves from Christie makes it safer for others to do so.
Christie has often spoken about how important loyalty is to him. But since his gubernatorial reelection campaign kicked off in 2013, many New Jersey Republicans have privately and off the record grumbled how loyalty is a one way street with Christie. “It’s all about Christie” was a frequent complaint among Republicans during the 2013 campaign in which the Governor had no coattails in the legislative races and during which he appeared publicly more with Democrats than Republicans as he ran up his numbers against a weak opponent.
Christie’s attempted ouster of Kean Jr post election was widely viewed as an act of disloyalty toward the Kean family which had supported Christie throughout his career.
Kyrillos breaking with Christie, if that happens, would be viewed as a catastrophic rift in Christie’s inner circle.
If Christie loses the fundraising war to Bush and loses his disciplinarian’s grip on the New Jersey Republicans in the legislature, all of his advisers, staffers and strategists will not be able to put Christie’s clout together again.
Christie is in Maryland today for the Inauguration of Governor Larry Hogan.