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Christie's Pick in N.H. Primary Is Pro-Choice

Christie's Pick in N.H. Primary Is Pro-Choice

By Scott Conroy - June 6, 2014

On the morning of June 20, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie will be in Washington, D.C., to deliver a highly anticipated speech at the Road to Majority conference -- an annual gathering of politically active evangelicals, hosted by the influential Faith and Freedom Coalition. 

Abortion -- as it always is at such Christian conservative confabs -- is sure to be among the key topics of discussion and one that Christie, who opposes abortion rights, is unlikely to shy from.  

“Twice for the first time since Roe v. Wade, New Jersey has elected a pro-life governor,” Christie reminded the crowd of activists at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference in March. 

But here is where it gets tricky.  

After speaking to the Ralph Reed-chaired group, he will later that day board a plane for New Hampshire where he will campaign in support of Walt Havenstein -- a self-described “pro-choice Republican."

Havenstein is running in a contested gubernatorial primary against a pro-life candidate, Andrew Hemingway, a GOP activist and strategist who ran Newt Gingrich’s 2012 presidential campaign in the state. 

Christie’s backing of Havenstein is all the more notable, since it is the first endorsement that he has offered in a contested Republican primary this year.  

Abortion has not been a central issue in the New Hampshire campaign, and pro-choice Republicans are not unusual in the state (Scott Brown, the likely GOP Senate nominee there, supports abortion rights).  

To Christie’s camp, the governor’s schedule that day is merely emblematic of his ability to connect with a wide swath of Republicans from across the ideological spectrum. But as he makes a strong push to connect with national conservatives who have been skeptical of his ideological purity, his New Hampshire trip will spotlight the tightrope he has to walk while gearing up for a likely 2016 presidential bid.  

Christie began his political career as an avowed supporter of abortion rights, but has said he changed his position in the mid-1990s after a prenatal visit to a doctor’s office with his wife. Hearing the heartbeat of his unborn daughter Sarah, the couple’s second-born child, was the catalyst. 

His pro-life credentials have rarely been challenged since then. 

But Havenstein’s position on the issue is just one reason why Christie’s decision to endorse him is notable. In his role as chairman of the Republican Governors Association, the second-term governor had made it a point not to get involved in contested primaries this year. And so his eagerness to make a strong impression with voters and activists in the Granite State sooner rather than later seems evident in the scheduling of this trip. 

After all, no state will be more critical than New Hampshire to his apparent hopes of securing the Republican nomination. 

The party’s last two presidential nominees, John McCain and Mitt Romney, both used victories there to propel their candidacies, and Christie’s similar center-right profile and establishment clout could make the state a similarly strong fit. 

With the New Hampshire among the final batch of states holding primaries -- on Sept. 9 -- Christie was not willing to wait that long to make his first visit there since 2012. According to multiple Republican sources in New Hampshire, Christie’s team has for months been working to schedule a trip there as they look to turn the page from the Bridgegate scandal. 

“With Christie, people think about the bridge, but a visit and a speech actually serves to change the conversation,” said Charlie Arlinghaus, president of the right-leaning Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy, located in Concord. “In the absence of a focal point like a visit, only controversies break through. This will change that.” 

Christie already has something of an unofficial campaign-in-waiting in New Hampshire with two former staffers -- who remain closely connected to his political orbit -- working in key roles in state politics.   

Matt Mowers, Christie’s former regional political director, is currently serving as the New Hampshire Republican Party’s executive director. And Colin Reed -- the New Jersey governor’s former deputy communications director -- is making additional friends for Team Christie in his role as Scott Brown’s campaign manager. 

Despite ongoing investigations involving members of his administration who ordered traffic lanes closed on the George Washington Bridge last September, allegedly in a political retribution scheme, Christie’s nearly seven-month tenure as RGA chairman has thus far been a glowing success: The organization raised a record-breaking sum of $23.5 million in the first quarter of 2014, and Christie has remained a top draw on the Republican fundraising circuit nationwide.  

But his foray into the New Hampshire Republican gubernatorial primary was unexpected.

While Havenstein enjoys broad support among the state’s GOP establishment, he has been widely perceived as running an underwhelming campaign since entering the race two months ago and also has had to fend off some unwelcome questions about his residency. 

Pointing to a state law stipulating that candidates must have resided in the state for seven years prior to their candidacy, Democrats have drawn attention to a Maryland tax exemption that Havenstein received from 2008 to 2011. 

The candidate shot back that he has kept his home in New Hampshire and voted in the state during those years, but he could face a challenge to his eligibility once his name is formally placed on the ballot later this month.  

Though he is widely perceived as the favorite in the contest, Havenstein faces real competition in the form of the 32-year-old Hemingway, who is well-connected among Tea Party groups and other grassroots organizations in the state.  

No public polling in the primary has been released, and the RGA itself is making clear that Christie is on his own in endorsing Havenstein.  (“As you know, we don't get involved in primaries,” RGA Communications director Gail Gitcho said in an email.) 

Christie could certainly use an ally in the Concord statehouse next year. But whichever Republican emerges the victor in September is likely to be a significant underdog against incumbent Democrat Maggie Hassan, who is popular statewide.  

Still, Havenstein has struggled to overcome his weak name recognition, and the media attention that will accompany Christie’s visit no doubt will help in that regard. 

“We’re very excited to have him here,” said Havenstein press secretary Henry Goodwin. “I think it speaks to the momentum that the campaign is building in taking back the governor’s office in New Hampshire.” 

But Christie’s Granite State visit may be as much of a boon for Hemingway as for Havenstein, as could solidify perceptions that this primary fight pits a self-defined “moderate Republican” against an insurgent Tea Party favorite. 

“It’s not really that surprising to me ideologically,” Hemingway said of Christie’s visit. “Gov. Christie and Walt are very similar, and so I think that naturally they’d be supportive of one another. … We are running a very aggressive grassroots campaign talking about innovative solutions to solve our state’s largest problems.” 

Christie’s June 20 trip will be brief. He is slated to appear at campaign stops around the Manchester area before attending a small-dollar fundraiser in the town Atkinson later that day. 

But New Hampshirites are likely to have plenty of other opportunities to catch a glimpse of the superstar governor in the coming months. According to two sources, Christie is making plans to return to the state later this summer.

Scott Conroy is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at sconroy@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @RealClearScott.

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