The race for the Republican nomination for president kicked off with a recent debate among eight aspirants, none of whom appears to have any shot at the prize. This is, of course, because former President Donald Trump’s domination of Republican primary voter sentiment looks overwhelming.
However, among the hopefuls, the one who is most intriguing to me is former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. All the others (with the exception of the less compelling personality Asa Hutchinson) are willing to support a Trump presidency, even if he is convicted of felonies for his attempts to undermine our democracy. Christie, on the other hand, has been very clear not only that he would not support the former president, but that he is out to convince Republican primary voters that Trump is a danger to democracy itself.
It is clear to all, including Christie, that he has no chance to get the Republican nomination given Trump’s popularity with the Republican base. While many of us hoped that Trump would have to face Christie on the debate stage and be confronted with a sharp-tongued former prosecutor’s lashing for his acts of election fraud, it may well be that Christie never gets that chance. However, it is very clear that as long as Christie is in the race, he views his role as attempting to educate voters as to why it would be horrendous to entrust Trump with nation’s chief executive role again, especially given his willingness to suspend the U.S. Constitution.
Thus, Christie seems to be on a moral mission rather carrying on a true presidential campaign. He sees his role as speaking truth on the subject of election integrity in preserving our democracy. He has a willingness to withstand loud boos from Republican crowds who do not want to hear harsh words about their dear leader.
However, as I look into my crystal ball, I believe Christie will face his own moment of truth. Many of us who are obsessively focused on the risk of another Trump presidency believe that Trump cannot win that office in a rematch against the incumbent Joe Biden, not least because of the strong opposition of independent suburban women in the key swing states. He significantly underperformed with this vital constituency in 2020, and there is every reason to believe he would fare far worse this time around.
Yet, Trump does appear today as if he will be our next president. That is because, based on what we know today, there will be at least one strong independent ticket, maybe more, that will be on the ballot of most if not all states. That independent ticket, backed by the group No Labels, will consist of a moderate Republican and a centrist Democrat put forward as a “unity ticket.” There is little doubt in the minds of most astute political observers that the No Labels third party ticket will syphon far more votes from Biden than from Trump, and give Trump the Electoral College victory he needs by giving him a plurality victory in key swing states.
The question is who will be on that unity ticket? If one were to bet today, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) would be a good guess to be either in the presidential or vice-presidential slot. He has been talking up the No Labels agenda, including in a key visit to New Hampshire, and he faces an extremely tough reelection fight in a state that gave Trump his second-greatest margin of victory in 2020.
But who would be the Republican on that unity ticket? While names such as former Utah Gov. John Huntsman, or former Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan have been discussed, No Labels seems to want—based on input from that organization—a Republican on the ticket who will be able to deliver aggressive verbal assaults on Trump’s credibility as a presidential nominee. After all, No Labels’ stated goal is to make sure Trump is never re-elected, and it is very important to its image that it appear it is doing all it can to prevent that from happening. Huntsman and Hogan are both highly respected moderate Republicans, but neither of them would fit the bill as a verbal attack dog that could slice and dice Trump on the campaign trail. Chris Christie could and would, and is without doubt tailormade for the role.
I say tailormade for the role because he not only has proved his chops as someone who knows how to make the most compelling and engaging case against Trump, but he was a Republican governor of a deeply blue state where he is able to claim to have worked across the aisle with a Democratic legislature. Manchin has the same claim, having been the Democratic governor of a very red state who worked across the aisle with Republicans. Together, the two of them would rather nicely epitomize the notion of being able to cross party lines and represent something far better than our current state of political polarization.
That brings us to the moment when my crystal ball says Christie will be tested. When the No Labels party seeks to make him part of their ticket at their April 2024 convention—by which time he will have dropped out of the Republican race—will he accept their overture? To do so, would make Chris Christie fully complicitous in the re-election of Donald Trump. The No Labels effort is Trump’s ticket to both the presidency and the get-out-of-jail-free card that it would provide him.
Picking up the No Labels mantle would put Christie at odds with everything he stands for today. However, for someone who wants to be president of the United States—or vice president depending on how that issue gets settled between Christie and Manchin—the notion that a third-party ticket could beat both Biden and Trump may be just too magnetic a fantasy for him to ignore. After all, both establishment candidates are widely unpopular. But make no mistake, it is a total fantasy. The only thing a No Labels candidacy can do is enable Trump’s re-election.
I raise this notion of a Christie independent candidacy not because I want to play strategist for No Labels. It is but because I see it as too real a possibility to ignore, despite the pledge that Christie signed to support the Republican nominee. (The pledge was required to get Christie on the Aug. 23 debate stage and Christie took it with an apparent grain of salt).
Hopefully, some journalist will ask Christie to totally disavow any possibility that he would accept the No Labels nomination. If Christie refuses to accept that nomination it will not remove the threat that the third party unity ticket might well re-elect Donald Trump, but it would certainly take one of their best options off the table.
Tom Rogers is an editor-at-large for Newsweek, the founder of CNBC and a CNBC contributor. He also established MSNBC, is the former CEO of TiVo, and a member of Keep Our Republic, an organization dedicated to preserving the nation’s democracy.
The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.