He Said She Said

12.03.13

A Cuomo-Christie Proxy War?

The New Jersey governor’s backing of a GOP challenger to Cuomo in the next New York governor’s race is being read for clues about a possible Christie-Cuomo showdown in 2016.

Andrew Cuomo versus Chris Christie isn’t just a potential 2016 presidential matchup; it’s a political skirmish that’s already being waged across the Hudson River.

While the two have had a relatively close working relationship as governors of neighboring states who shared control of the New York Port Authority, it’s been strained in recent days by a report that Christie, the new head of the Republican Governors Association (RGA), has been helping to recruit Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino to run against Cuomo in 2014. The he said-she said over what exactly Christie said to Astorino in a pre-Thanksgiving meeting in Arizona and then how the New Jersey Governor tried to smooth things over with Cuomo have sparked a mini media frenzy in the Tristate area that is rife with 2016 implications.

What everyone agrees upon is that Christie sat down for an hour with Astorino at the RGA’s conference in Arizona. Astorino is considering a gubernatorial bid in 2014 and Christie was encouraging. The question is what else the New Jersey Governor said. Fred Dicker of the New York Post was told by what he described as a “source close to the RGA” that  “Christie basically told [Astorino] that he’d love nothing better than to see him beat Andrew Cuomo.”  This source went on to tell Dicker “Christie offered to do all he could to help Rob, and he was among loads of people at the meeting who were saying, ‘Run, baby, run.’ ’’

Needless to say, when this report in the New York Post appeared on November 25 it immediately caused awkwardness between the two governors and Christie called Cuomo to deny it.  Shortly thereafter, when Cuomo was asked about the Post story by reporters on a conference call he told them, “I spoke to Gov. Christie this morning, who told me the exact opposite.” An anonymous source went on to tamp down on the Post’s story by telling the Wall Street Journal that Christie simply had “a pretty routine meeting that he would do with any challenger given his new role with RGA.” That seemed like it was the end of the matter but then new life was breathed into the contretemps on Monday.

In a new story, Dicker described Christie’s actions as “bizarre behavior” and stated that it could derail his presidential ambitions in 2016. According to “a nationally prominent GOP operative” that Dicker talked to: “Christie already has a problem with many Republicans refusing to forgive him because of his embrace of [President] Obama and his socially liberal policies. But this bizarre behavior in suggesting he won’t help a Republican defeat a Democratic governor, and a Cuomo no less, could finish off his chances of becoming his party’s nominee for president in 2016.”

What seems to have been a routine meeting between the head of the RGA and a Republican pondering a gubernatorial bid has been transformed into a proxy war.

This seems an exaggerated claim. After all, as head of the RGA, Christie can’t openly support any non-incumbent gubernatorial candidate who has yet to win the GOP’s nomination. Further, as even Dicker admits, Astorino doesn’t stand much of a chance in 2014. Any Republican running statewide in New York would face an uphill battle, let alone one running against a popular and well-financed incumbent like Cuomo. Plus, it’s unclear how much help Christie can offer even if the Westchester County Executive gets the Republican nomination.

The playing field for Republican governors in 2014 isn’t very favorable. The RGA will have to defend incumbents who were elected at the crest of the Tea Party wave in 2010, many of whom, like Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett and Florida Governor Rick Scott, are now deeply unpopular. With limited time and resources to devote to any one race, it might seem less than judicious for Christie to target a popular incumbent in the New York media market rather than focus his efforts on close races in swing states.

What seems to have been a routine meeting between the head of the RGA and a Republican pondering a gubernatorial bid has been transformed into a proxy war. Regardless of whether Astorino runs, the recent dust up shows that every action taken by Christie and Cuomo in the next few years will be viewed through the prism of 2016.  It leads one to wonder how breathlessly the actual runup to the 2016 election will be covered.