Who's 'Right' — CPAC Or Chris Christie? : Political Junkie Chris Christie, the governor of New Jersey, is immensely popular, an apparent shoo-in for a second term this year. But his decision to take Obamacare money and federal relief help in the wake of Hurricane Sandy cost him an invitation to speak at a key conservative conference this month.

Who's 'Right' — CPAC Or Chris Christie?

Feb. 27 Junkie segment on TOTN

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New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie gives details on his 2014 state budget in Trenton, N.J., Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2013. Rich Schultz/AP hide caption

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New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie gives details on his 2014 state budget in Trenton, N.J., Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2013.

Rich Schultz/AP

Who's 'Right' — CPAC Or Chris Christie?

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For a city that thrives on huge controversies and breathtaking tremors, perhaps last week's mini-squabble over whether or not to invite Chris Christie to the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) later this month is not what you would call a big deal. But the decision — not to invite him — says something about the conservative movement ... and what defines a conservative.

Christie, the Republican governor of New Jersey, is currently enjoying stratospheric approval numbers at home, mostly in the wake of his response to Hurricane Sandy and the damage it brought to the Garden State. He is heavily favored to win re-election this year against state Sen. Barbara Buono, his likely Democratic opponent, who in a recent Monmouth University poll trails the governor by only 42 points. He is thought to be seriously considering a bid for the White House in 2016.

He loves to savage the Democrats, torment the unions, embarrass the media, single out those who question him. In a world of carefully scripted politicians, his propensity for saying what he thinks is often described, for the most part, as a breath of fresh air. But none of this necessarily means he is a conservative in good standing.

On Tuesday, he announced he would buy into President Obama's Medicaid health-care expansion, which would open coverage to more low-income families. He insists he hasn't changed his mind about Obamacare:

"Let me be clear, I am no fan of the Affordable Care Act. I think it is wrong for New Jersey and for America. ... [But] refusing these federal dollars would not mean that they wouldn't be spent. It just means that they will be used to expand health-care access in New York, Connecticut, Ohio or somewhere else. ... It's simple. We're putting people first."

A narrow winner in 2009, he's now the most popular Republican governor in the country. Ken Rudin collection hide caption

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Christie joins several other GOP governors, notably Rick Scott of Florida and John Kasich of Ohio, in taking the federal dollars after years of expressing opposition to the plan. But that isn't his only apostasy.

In the aftermath of the Sandy tragedy, Christie lobbied hard for federal assistance. He welcomed Obama to the state, telling everyone how pleased he was with his response to the calamity. Now, one would think that the governor of a state where damages were in the tens of billions of dollars would do nothing less than ask for help from Washington. But this happened not long before the 2012 presidential election, and there were some supporters of Mitt Romney who let it be known they were displeased with Christie showing affection for the president at the worst possible time.

And when the Republicans in Congress announced in December they would (temporarily) put off a vote on Sandy aid, Christie lambasted House Speaker John Boehner and his party, giving them a lecture in the process.

So when it came time to send out the invites for this year's CPAC powwow, it wasn't a difficult choice for Al Cardenas, the head of the American Conservative Union (and CPAC's sponsor) to skip Christie. Mitt Romney? Sure. Sarah Palin? Of course. Paul Ryan, Marco Rubio, Bobby Jindal? Bring 'em. But not Christie.

"We felt that the governor's tone and attitude regarding this relief bill, which was really a pork bill, did not justify an invitation to the conservative conference and we took a pass this year."

Of course, Cardenas didn't always feel that way. Seth McLaughlin of the Washington Times reminds us:

"Mr. Christie in June headlined CPAC Chicago, where Mr. Cardenas introduced him as 'probably the finest straight-talker in America' and called him a 'great defender of liberty,' 'great defender of freedom' and 'a fiscal conservative.'"

But that was then and this is now. Many in the conservative movement support the exclusion. Morton Blackwell, a longtime GOP activist from Virginia and an ACU board member, said, "He is a Republican, but I don't think he would accurately be described as a conservative. ... And a lot of people have in their minds the image of him hugging Barack Obama in the late stages of the presidential campaign."

And POLITICO quotes Rick Wilson, a Florida GOP operative, as saying, "The essential element that's missing in the Acela corridor kerfuffle on Christie not being invited to CPAC is the 'C' in CPAC stands for 'Conservative.' ... You have a guy who stung the base very badly in the closing days of the 2012 election. ... He's done some fine work in New Jersey, but he's also handled relationships with the base with what a lot of conservatives view as contempt. On guns, global warming and a host of other issues, he's not exactly asking for an invitation to the dance."

Not everyone agrees.

National Review's Jonah Goldberg called the decision a "mistake":

"At precisely the moment the party should be making every effort to be — or at least seem! — as open as possible to differing points of view, it's chosen to exclude the most popular governor in the country."

Conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer said on Fox News, "This is a vast overreaction and it's a mistake. He's a leading Republican, he's obviously of presidential timber, he's got the highest popularity of any governor and he's in a blue state. ... Look, I wasn't very happy with what he did in Sandy, I thought he deserves three months in quarantine. But three months is up. I'd let him out. We should have him at CPAC. We should have a wide tent and if that's what it takes to win elections in the Northeast and nationwide, let's go for it."

Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) said on CNN that the decision hurts CPAC far more than it does Christie, saying it's a "suicidal death wish" and it "writes off CPAC as a serious force":

"You have a governor who is conservative — he's balanced the budget, he's taken on public employee unions, he's pro-life — and yet, he has a 74% favorable rating in a Democratic blue state. So here's a person who has shown that blue collar conservatism works, that it appeals to working men and women, that it appeals to women - and these are the areas that we've been suffering."

And Matthew Dowd, the former strategist for President George W. Bush, said this on ABC's This Week:

"CPAC, to me, has totally diminished its credibility as an organization. ... And you invite Sarah Palin, who wasn't competent enough to keep a Fox News contract? But she's invited to CPAC meeting?"

Throughout all this, Democrats are sitting back and enjoying the show. On the same ABC show, James Carville added, "Any day that you have more Sarah Palin and less Chris Christie is a good day for James Carville."

But in the end, what does this really mean for Christie? If you're running for re-election in Blue State New Jersey, being excluded by CPAC could be a good thing. That's how Allahpundit saw it, writing on the HotAir blog:

"By making Sandy aid the big peg for excluding him, you're doing him an incredible political favor. Sandy relief is the biggest reason why his approval rating in Jersey is upwards of 75 percent; it's likely also the biggest reason he polls well nationally even with Democrats at the moment. His whole post-Sandy nonpartisan brand is built on the idea that he's less ideological and just more goshdarned caring than those heartless conservatives in the GOP congressional caucus. And now here's CPAC proclaiming that, indeed, his Sandy relief support is cause for (temporary) banishment from conservatism. He'll be crowing about it for weeks. It's practically an in-kind contribution to his gubernatorial campaign."

Of course, it's one thing to say it doesn't matter in New Jersey in 2013. What it means for 2016, if anything, is something else.

What do you think? Take my fake poll. Please.

That other 2013 gov. campaign. Virginia holds the nation's only other gubernatorial contest this year. There is no suspense as to the identities of the major party candidates who hope to succeed Bob McDonnell (R), who is constitutionally barred from seeking re-election: Terry McAuliffe, the former DNC chair, will be the Democratic nominee, and state Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli will be the GOP standard bearer. The only suspense is the path Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling decides to take. A Republican, Bolling wanted to be governor but never had a shot at competing for the GOP nod with Cuccinelli, who is far more conservative and far more popular with the party's activists. Bolling, who has not hidden his disdain for what he calls Cuccinelli's "outside the mainstream" ideology, has hinted of making a third-party effort.

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And coming up this week. Tuesday is round one for the race for mayor of Los Angeles, where Antonio Villaraigosa, the city's first Latino mayor since 1872, is retiring after eight years. History could be in the making here, as two of the leading candidates, city Controller Wendy Greuel and Councilmember Jan Perry, are hoping to become the city's first female mayor (Perry is also black and Jewish, and L.A. never elected a Jewish mayor either). Kevin James, a former prosecutor and a radio talk show host, would be the city's first openly gay mayor. He is also a Republican. But the focus is less on ethnicity, race and history and more on what Los Angeles is facing in the future; school dropout rates are on the rise and the city is having finance concerns in its efforts to improve services. Another leading candidate in the nonpartisan election is Councilmember Eric Garcetti, the son of former D.A. Gil Garcetti. If no candidate receives a majority of the vote, which seems likely, the top two finishers advance to a May 21 runoff.

Political Updates. I post periodic political updates during the week — some serious, some not — on Twitter. You can follow me at @kenrudin.

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Political Junkie segment on Talk of the Nation. Each Wednesday at 2 p.m. ET, the Political Junkie segment appears on Talk of the Nation (NPR's call-in program), hosted by Neal Conan with me adding color commentary, where you can, sometimes, hear interesting conversation, useless trivia questions and sparkling jokes. Last week's show focused on what makes a successful mayor, with special guest — and no relation — former Sacramento Mayor Anne Rudin.

One footnote: When Anne Rudin — whom for the record I met many years ago when she was in DC for a mayor's conference — was introduced on the show, I playfully said, "Hi Mom!" Later in the day, my real mom, who always listens to the show and tells me what she learned, texted me the following: "I just found out that Mayor Rudin is your mother!"

What can I say? You can listen to the segment here:

Who's 'Right' — CPAC Or Chris Christie?

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Last week's trivia question. Who was the last person whose nomination to the Cabinet was defeated in committee but yet went on to win confirmation by the full Senate? (Answer below)

Podcast. There's also a new episode of our weekly podcast, "It's All Politics," up every Thursday. It's hosted by my partner in crime, Ron Elving, and me.

Feb. 27 Junkie segment on TOTN

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And Don't Forget ScuttleButton. ScuttleButton, America's favorite waste-of-time button puzzle, can usually be found in this spot every Monday or Tuesday. A randomly selected winner will be announced every Wednesday during the Political Junkie segment on NPR's Talk of the Nation. You still have time to submit your answer to last week's contest, which you can see here. Sure, there's incredible joy in deciphering the answer, but the winner gets not only a Political Junkie T-shirt but also a 3-1/2-inch Official No-Prize Button! Is this a great country or what??


March 5 — Los Angeles mayoral election.

March 19 — Special primary in South Carolina's 1st Congressional District to replace Tim Scott (R), who was appointed to the Senate.

April 2 — Runoff in S.C. 01.

April 9 — Special election in Illinois' 2nd CD to replace Jesse Jackson Jr. (D), who resigned.

April 30 — Special Massachusetts Senate primary.

May 7 — Special election in S.C. 01.

May 21 — Los Angeles mayoral runoff.

June 4 — Special election in Missouri's 8th CD to replace Jo Ann Emerson (R), who resigned.

June 25 — Special Senate election in Massachusetts to replace John Kerry, who is now secretary of state.

Mailing list. To receive a weekly email alert about the new column and ScuttleButton puzzle, contact me at politicaljunkie@npr.org.

Trivia answer. Henry Wallace, the former vice president and President Roosevelt's choice for secretary of commerce, in 1945.

******* Don't Forget: If you are sending in a question to be used in this column, please include your city and state. *********

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This day in campaign history: At the filing deadline for the special Senate race in Texas to replace Vice President Lyndon Johnson, 73 candidates qualify for the April 4 ballot. The major candidates, all Democrats, are thought to be interim Sen. William Blakley, state Attorney General Will Wilson, U.S. Rep. Jim Wright, former state Rep. Maury Maverick Jr., and state Sen. Henry B. Gonzalez. There's also one Republican running: John Tower, who got 41 percent of the vote against Johnson in 1960 (March 4, 1961). In the April 4 election, with so many Democrats in the race, Tower will lead the field with 31 percent, followed by Blakley, with 18 percent. Both are strong conservatives. But in the May 27 runoff, Tower will shock the nation with an upset victory over Blakley (51-49 percent) and become the first Texas Republican elected to the Senate since Reconstruction.

Got a question? Ask Ken Rudin: politicaljunkie@npr.org