If Chris Christie was ever the frontrunner for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, he isn’t anymore. All along, the theory behind his candidacy was that he could overcome his lack of conservative bona fides with a combination of personality, competence, electability, and money. Bridgegate undermines all four.
In the minds of many voters, Christie’s personality has morphed from brash to bully. It’s harder to look competent when your top aides egregiously abused power under your nose. Christie’s supposed electability was based partly on polls showing that he was the only potential Republican nominee running even with Hillary Clinton. But Marist and Quinnipiac, whose surveys showed Clinton and Christie virtually tied in December, now show him trailing her by 13 and 8 points, respectively. The electability argument also depended on Christie’s supposed success in bringing New Jerseyans together across party lines, a harder claim now that Democrats in the state legislature are talking impeachment. And as Christie’s electability erodes, so will his vaunted support among GOP moneymen. As a Republican insider recently told BuzzFeed’s McKay Coppins, “There are definitely people jumping ship.”
So if Christie is no longer the candidate to beat in the 2016 Republican race, who is? Believe it or not, it’s Rand Paul.
To understand the Kentucky senator’s hidden strength, it’s worth remembering this basic fact about the modern GOP: It almost never nominates first-time candidates. Since 1980, George W. Bush is the only first-timer to win a Republican nomination. And since Bush used the political network his father built, he enjoyed many of the benefits of someone who had run before. It’s the same with Paul. In both Iowa and New Hampshire, he begins with an unparalleled infrastructure left over from his father Ron Paul’s 2008 and 2012 campaigns.