File photo of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
By John Celock
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) made his name for being a blunt talking governor and is betting his presidential campaign on that candor, but those outside of New Jersey say it can help and hurt him as he branches out of the Northeast.
Political experts in states around the country told The Celock Report that the American public wants to see candor from politicians but at the same time he has to reign in his blunt talk to avoid turning off voters in the heartland. Christie, who announced his candidacy on Tuesday, is theming his campaign as “telling it like it is” and doing a series of his signature town hall meetings around New Hampshire. On Wednesday he was endorsed by Maine Gov. Paul LePage (R), another political leader known for his blunt talk.
“I believe his tell it like it is approach will play well in western libertarian states,” Wyoming state Rep. Dan Zwonitzer (R-Cheyenne), who has not endorsed a candidate, told The Celock Report. “We value honesty and straight talk.”
Former Kansas state Rep. Stephanie Sharp, now a Republican strategist, agreed with Zwonitzer that voters are looking for a politician with candor. She said that during her time as a state legislator representing suburban Johnson County, voters said they wanted candor, something she said her clients have told her as well.
Sharp said Christie’s challenge is to “be blunt and not be a jerk.” She said the goal is that he does not want to be viewed as “condescending” by those outside of the Northeast.
“That candor can come off as I am smarter than you because I am from the Northeast,” she said. “He can one it though to come off as less judgmental and that will help with the base of the party.”
Sharp said that Christie will need to tone down his blunt personality at times so he does not cause concern that his well known bluntness would come up as president in dealing with world leaders.
While both Zwonitzer and Sharp are moderate Republicans, Washington state Rep. Hans Zeiger (R-Puyallup), a conservative Republican, told The Celock Report that while he sees people in America who will respond well to Christie. He noted that Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s blunt style has won him fans.
Zeiger agreed with Sharp that a candidate will need to balance bluntness with a need to look like a president. He cited Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker as an example. Zeiger has not endorsed a presidential hopeful, but said that Walker is his favorite followed by Florida U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio.
“There is a populist streak in America that resonates with,” Zeiger said of Christie’s candor. “I also think people like well placed bluntness and not bluntness for the sake of bluntness. Someone who is more cautious and blunt in the right places is going to look more presidential.”
Sean Kelly, a political science professor at California State University – Channel Islands, said that he finds Christie’s bluntness to be his “biggest problem.” Citing Christie’s confrontations with teachers and others who disagree with him during town hall meetings in New Jersey, he said that would not sell in other states. Christie is well known for a confrontational style with those who challenge him during town halls. Christie has had a long adversarial relationship with the New Jersey Education Association and teachers across New Jersey based on his push to change pension and benefits for public employees and reform teacher tenure.
Kelly worked in North Carolina and western New York before California.
“That is going to be a problem in places like Iowa and Kansas and other places where people are nice to each other,” Kelly said of Christie’s style. “People from New York and New Jersey can deal with that, but it might not fly in western New York. I think he is going to bomb terribly. I think it will be a complete disaster. He is going to yell at some nice teacher in Iowa and she’ll break down in tears and that will be his legacy.”
Kelly said that he thinks a “truth teller” has the ability to resonate with the American people, but that the person has to be respectful and engage in a “respectful conversation”. He noted that he believes that Vermont U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders is rising in the Democratic presidential field due to a “truth teller” appeal, but noted that Sanders has a rough style.
Kelly though said he does not think Christie has the ability to change.
“I think he has made his career on the ability to bully people,” he said. “He can’t figure out any other way to operate.”
Sharp said that she believes that Christie’s biggest challenge will be connecting with the party’s conservative base in the primaries. She said that while Christie might be able to highlight his policies that have taken on unions, GOP base voters won’t focus there.
“The base’s issues are social. You can’t overcome his social stances,” she said. “It doesn’t matter how pure he is on the union busting side that doesn’t matter to the base.”
Christie has been highlighting his more conservative stances in recent days, including tax cuts and changes to New Jersey gun regulations on the eve of his Tuesday announcement.
On Tuesday, Jeanette Hoffman, a Republican political strategist in New Jersey, told The Celock Report that Christie will continue to highlight his conservative positions to shed the blue state moderate label he has. She noted the conflicts he has had in the past over issues such as vetoing funding for Planned Parenthood services.
While Hoffman was saying that Christie is a conservative, Essex County Freeholder Len Luciano (D), a teacher who said he was “pretty disgusted and fed up” with Christie’s attitude towards teachers, described Christie as having “a liberal, left leaning track record.” Both Christie and Luciano have won two elections in Luciano’s suburban swing district in western Essex County.
Zeiger said that he believes Christie could pull off a win in the primary with a moderate platform. He noted that the large size of the GOP field will allow a moderate candidate to pull off a win with 20 percent of the vote in a state.
“Just because you are a moderate does not mean that it is a problem,” he said.
Sharp, who was raised in the western Kansas community of Garden City, said that she believes that while Christie is a product of suburban New Jersey that he can play well outside of the suburbs and cities where he has spent most of his time as New Jersey’s governor. She said his style could resonate with rural voters if it’s balanced.
“I think it can play well in rural America,” Sharp said. “If he can speak truth to power without condescension.”