Tea partyers rejected the notion Wednesday that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie will make inroads with the grass-roots movement after his landslide re-election win, saying the tough-talking Republican is another Northeast “RINO” and pick of a corrupt GOP establishment.
Tea party leaders emerged from Tuesday less enthusiastic about Mr. Christie’s win than they were angry over the loss by Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II in Virginia’s race for governor, accusing the Republican establishment of undercutting a conservative candidate who they say could have won.
“Knowing that Christie was going to win that race without their help, why would they not help Cuccinelli more?” said Amy Kremer, head of Tea Party Express. “I believe they did not want to help him because they don’t want any more tea party conservatives in power anywhere, because they don’t want to fortify the ranks of the Mike Lee, Rand Paul and Ted Cruzes of the world because we are a threat to their power structure.”
Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus dismissed the attacks, telling The Washington Times that the RNC funneled more than $3 million to the Virginia campaign and saying he is as disappointed as other Republicans that Mr. Cuccinelli lost.
However, the recriminations and the tea party reaction to Tuesday’s results signal that the election did little to quell the internal battle over policy and tactics that has riven the party for several years.
“As far as tea partyers are concerned, Christie is a nonissue, and the New Jersey race was not even on their radar — it was all about Virginia and Cuccinelli,” Ms. Kremer said.
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The blase response to Mr. Christie could be a warning sign for the New Jersey governor as he ponders a presidential run in 2016, where he most likely would be squaring off against some darlings of the tea party movement, including Mr. Cruz of Texas and Mr. Paul of Kentucky, who dubbed Mr. Christie a “moderate” Tuesday, hours after the governor described himself as a “conservative.”
The term “RINO” — a general epithet for Republican In Name Only — is also commonly tossed at Mr. Christie.
“Christie faces a delicate balancing act with the tea party,” said Darrell West, director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution. “He can’t openly alienate them because its members vote in Republican presidential primaries. But he clearly is positioning himself as a more pragmatic Republican who can deal with Democrats. What I suspect he will do is emphasize his economic conservatism but social moderation. That could help him get some conservative voters plus still have the capacity to reach out to moderates.”
Mr. Christie tried to bridge some of the gaps with the tea party on election night, saying he shares their philosophy of limited government and that the core of the movement is “very consistent with good, conservative Republicanism.”
But he also said that “sometimes the movement can be perverted,”an allusion to the Cruz-led effort to defund Obamacare that resulted in a partial federal government shutdown last month.
“Some of the stuff that has happened of late down in Washington is not even consistent with a lot of the real folks who started the tea party movement would agree with,” he said on CNN’s “The Lead.”
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But tea partyers simply said that Mr. Christie is not one of them.
“He wouldn’t know the tea party movement if it bit him,” said Judson Phillips, head of Tea Party Nation. “Ted Cruz exemplifies the tea party and tea party values. Chris Christie is just another moderate and Northeastern Republican. There are a lot of conservatives who are walking from the Republican Party, and if Chris Christie is the GOP nominee in 2016 it will guarantee that the Republican Party will lose again, as exemplified by Mitt Romney, John McCain and Bob Dole.”
On Wednesday, tea party leaders said the RNC wasted money on Mr. Christie’s campaign that should have gone to Mr. Cuccinelli’s.
The movement leaders said they thought party elders intended to undercut the Virginia campaign so they could use Mr. Christie’s landslide victory as proof that the party can win without appealing to the tea party.
“I think they are willing to lose a governor’s race just to be spiteful and just win a message war,” said Keli Carender, national grass-roots coordinator for the Tea Party Patriots. “Now they can go in 2014 and 2016, and they want to be able to use the Cuccinelli race and the outcome in Virginia as an argument as to why they should be supported and the tea party shouldn’t be.”
Mr. Priebus, though, said the RNC made a full effort in Virginia. In addition to the $3 million financial commitment, the party deployed more than 60 full-time staff members into Virginia, where members worked in tandem with the state party and the Cuccinelli campaign to bring out the vote.
Mr. Cuccinelli nearly defeated Terry McAuliffe, whose solid lead in the polls collapsed in the final days of the campaign.
“I am not sure what other groups put in the race, but I think $3 million is a lot of money,” Mr. Priebus said. “It is nothing to laugh at. There is always some Monday-morning quarterbacking going on, but you can only spend what you reasonably have.
“If we didn’t put out $3 million on the ground, what would the score be then?” he asked. The RNC put $2.5 million into Christie’s race and had 32 staff members in New Jersey.
Tea partyers countered that in 2009 the RNC funneled $9 million into Bob McDonnell’s successful gubernatorial campaign in Virginia and said it was evidence that the RNC was not serious about getting Mr. Cuccinelli elected.
Others, though, noted that the money spent on the McDonnell campaign four years ago was excessive and an example of why the RNC was saddled with $23 million in debt when Mr. Priebus took charge in 2011.
• Seth McLaughlin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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