The man who famously disassembled Sen. Marco Rubio on a Republican presidential debate stage in 2016 may be prevented from doing the same to coup-attempting former President Donald Trump under rules being considered by the Republican National Committee for its 2024 primary debates.
Chris Christie, the former New Jersey governor and loyal Trump supporter who broke from him over his words and deeds after the 2020 election, is expected to announce his presidential campaign next week. He has openly said he plans to confront Trump about his “stolen” election lies and his actions leading up to and during the Jan. 6, 2021, assault on the U.S. Capitol, even as other candidates have shied away from criticizing Trump at all.
“If it takes a bully to beat a bully?” said one Christie adviser on condition of anonymity, acknowledging the criticisms of his brash personality. “At least Chris believes in the system. He’s read the Constitution.”
But such a showdown may not come to pass because of a proposed requirement that candidates must have at least 40,000 unique donors to make the first scheduled debate in August ― a threshold Christie, who had difficulty raising small-dollar donations when he ran in 2016, may not be able to meet in just two months.
“I definitely think the RNC rules were built to help Trump,” said Tim Miller, a former RNC communications director.
“In 2020, the RNC canceled 22 primaries and caucuses to protect their king,” said Joe Walsh, the former Republican congressman who ran against Trump in the 2020 primary. “This time around they can’t cancel primaries and caucuses, but they’ll still do all they can do to protect their king, like making it as hard as possible for challengers to debate him. Yes, the RNC will do all they can to keep Christie and any other Trump-critical candidate off that stage.”
The RNC denied there is any attempt to help Trump, even though the chair of the party’s debate committee, David Bossie, was a top aide on Trump’s campaigns in both 2016 and 2020.
Bossie did not respond to HuffPost queries on this matter.
Ronna McDaniel, who was handpicked by Trump as the party chair after his 2016 victory but who earlier this year won her third two-year term on her own, in a recent Fox News interview declined to comment on the sniping between Trump and fellow 2024 GOP candidate Ron DeSantis, the Florida governor. “We have to stay neutral here at the RNC,” she said.
Oscar Brock, an RNC member from Tennessee, said he doubts Bossie would be permitted to take sides in the primary. “Frankly, I can’t imagine the rest of the members of the committee would allow Bossie to tip the scales in favor of his buddy Trump,” Brock said.
“That being said, it was truly a bizarre appointment by Ronna to name Bossie to the debates committee chairmanship. She can promise that she’s going to be neutral in the primary, but no one believes her. Her actions give lie to her words,” he added.
Even anti-Trump Republicans and Christie supporters, meanwhile, agree that the party has a legitimate need to encourage small contributions from a larger universe of donors to try to catch up to Democrats, who outraised many Republican candidates in the 2022 midterms thanks to $5, $20 and $50 contributions.
“This is not about Christie or any particular current or prospective candidate but about the RNC and GOP candidates recognizing they need to expand their small-dollar donor efforts,” said former RNC chair Michael Steele. “The party has been woefully behind the DNC in small-dollar fundraising since 2010. With so much recent emphasis on major donors and billionaires choosing their individual favorites, the upstream impact of small donors across local, state and federal elections has been lost. This is a smart fundraising/strategic move by the RNC.”
Steele added that a great number of Americans broadly, not just Republicans, would like to see Christie eviscerate Trump in a debate and that Christie would be able to tap that sentiment to hit the unique donor threshold. “That’s why it won’t be a problem for him,” he said.
Raising money from lots of people in small increments, though, would be a dramatic change in approach for Christie. Of the $8.7 million he raised in 2016, less than $500,000 came from small-dollar donors giving $200 or less, according to Federal Election Commission filings. In an October 2015 analysis by Common Cause, Christie ranked fifth from the bottom among the two dozen 2016 candidates for small-dollar fundraising.
And a failure to hit the 40,000-donor mark in time to make the August debate stage in Milwaukee could, in turn, thwart Christie’s ability to raise his profile, resulting in a failure to make the proposed 50,000-donor threshold for the September debate in California or the 60,000 threshold for the October one in Alabama.
The Christie adviser said he had learned a great deal from the failure of his 2016 campaign and has spent the past four years building relationships with local and state-level GOP groups to build his small-donor list. The adviser said he himself would be helping raise $5 donations to help Christie get on stage.
“We will definitely have 40,000 people, though. I’m not worried about that,” he said.
In any case, the 40,000 threshold would not create a challenge solely for Christie. Other candidates who declare between now and August who are not well known nationally could also have a tough time meeting that criterion, including North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum and New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu. Florida’s Ron DeSantis, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and U.S. Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina appear likely to have the 40,000 donors. Biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy’s campaign said it had already exceeded that mark by about 3,000.
One Republican familiar with the discussions said a proposal under consideration would allow candidates who had helped a national GOP committee ― such as the RNC or the National Republican Senatorial Committee ― raise money by permitting it to send out solicitations under their names to count the resulting donors toward the debate threshold.
Of course, even if Christie does make the first debate, it’s unclear whether he can successfully take down Trump the way he did Rubio.
“I think the debate stage narrative in the media is ahead of reality,” Miller said. “I don’t think it’s certain Trump is even going to participate at this stage and wouldn’t be surprised if his team tried to use leverage to get additional concessions.”
In 2016, Rubio had been hoping to improve on his third-place Iowa caucus finish in the New Hampshire primary. In the Feb. 6, 2016, debate, though, Christie mocked and humiliated the senator from Florida for repeating a memorized line about President Barack Obama wanting to weaken the United States.
“There it is. There it is. The memorized 25-second speech. There it is, everybody,” Christie said after Rubio yet again repeated the line about Obama.
Rubio, who had hoped to win or place second, instead finished fifth in New Hampshire. Christie, meanwhile, dropped out of the race the day after the primary and endorsed Trump two weeks later, becoming Trump’s highest-profile supporter.
Christie continued backing Trump and defending him publicly, even after Trump summarily discarded all the work Christie had put together for the potential transition. Heading into the 2020 election, Christie still backed Trump and even played Democrat Joe Biden during presidential debate prep sessions.
Over the past two years, though, Christie has become among the most outspoken Trump critics who continue to call themselves Republican. On a recent podcast produced by political consultant allies of Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell, Christie said he intends to make Trump’s character ― or lack thereof ― one of his key critiques. He recounted how Trump, despite having tested positive for COVID, nevertheless continued with a debate prep session that likely infected not just Christie but also several of his top aides. The disease put Christie in the hospital and nearly killed him.
“He popped a positive test on Saturday morning and then went in the room with all six of us and never told us a thing. Never told us a thing,” Christie said, adding that Trump, after recovering from his own COVID hospitalization, lied to reporters on Air Force One, telling them that Christie had infected him.
But though Rubio was clearly shaken by Christie’s scolding, it’s unclear whether Trump would respond the same way.
“Rubio is a different beast from Trump,” the Christie adviser said, conceding that using childish insults to attack his opponents was a Trump strength. “I do think Chris can bring the heat to Trump… If you knock Trump out of the race, that helps the United States. If Trump becomes president again, that’s going to be a nightmare for the United States and the world.”
Fergus Cullen, a former chair of the New Hampshire state party, said he’s not certain Christie can so easily take down Trump, but there was only one way to know for sure. “He is saying things in public that need to be said in public,” Cullen said. “Whether it will leave a mark, let’s try and find out.”