How Chris Christie took over the Republican Governors Association

Story highlights

High-profile job allows Christie to gain foothold in key states, mingle with GOP's big financial backers

Previous RGA chairmen have used the job as a national launching pad

Christie launched behind the scenes phone and email campaign to shake up order of succession

Christie backers say his ever-growing star power will be boon for RGA in a busy election year.

Phoenix, Arizona CNN  — 

There wasn’t room for the two of them.

In the fall of 2012, with the presidential race in full swing, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, two prominent Republican governors with well-known national ambitions, were engaged in a different kind of campaign.

Behind the scenes, both men were aggressively jockeying for a plum political gig: The chairmanship of the Republican Governors Association, a coveted post for any aspiring presidential candidate.

The high-profile job would allow one of them to travel the country, gain a foothold in key states, and mingle with some of the GOP’s leading financial backers – all while controlling a nearly $150 million midterm political budget.

Previous RGA chairmen have used the post as a national launch pad: Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney led the RGA in 2006 before his first presidential campaign, and Texas Gov. Rick Perry steered the committee in 2011 before embarking on his own White House bid.

Christie won’t commit to serving full term in New Jersey

Ultimately, both Jindal and Christie would each have a shot at running the RGA, Jindal in 2013 and Christie in 2014. Christie, fresh off his re-election in New Jersey, formally took over the reins of the organization on Thursday afternoon at its annual meeting in Arizona. Jindal is transitioning to the role of vice-chairman.

But before that line of succession was arranged, the tightly knit universe of GOP governors who comprise the RGA had to wrestle with an uncomfortable dilemma: Jindal and Christie were both gunning for the committee’s top job in the same year – 2014.

And with good reason.

Next year’s midterm elections feature 36 gubernatorial contests, including three potentially competitive races in the early presidential caucus and primary states of Iowa, South Carolina and Florida. The RGA chairman will be a familiar face on television screens across the country and a constant point of contact for major donors. A successful 2014 cycle would be a gleaming resume point heading into the 2016 presidential cycle, which begins in earnest the moment polls close next November.

GOP civil war could be brutal in 2014

The question of who would run the show in 2014, Jindal or Christie, was complicated by the organization’s lack of formal succession rules and Perry’s unexpected resignation in late 2011 to run for president.

When Perry stepped aside, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell was suddenly thrust into the RGA’s top job. Christie was elected vice-chairman, putting him in line to take over the RGA in 2013.

Jindal, a veteran member of the RGA’s executive committee, was hoping to follow him in 2014.

But that scenario did not sit well with Christie and his team of advisers for one glaring reason: He was up for re-election in 2013, making it next to impossible to run the party committee while also campaigning for his own job in New Jersey. The Garden State’s strict laws governing coordination between party committees made the prospect even more forbidding.

Where does Christie go next?

So with a flurry of phone calls and e-mails to his fellow governors, Christie charged ahead and launched a behind-the-scenes campaign to shake up the planned order of succession and take over the RGA in 2014, multiple Republican sources told CNN. Jindal started whipping up his own votes.

Most of the Republicans familiar with their efforts insisted that the brief but intense campaign for the 2014 job, which unfolded in September and October of last year, was collegial and far from rancorous.

“The leadership teams for 2013-2014 were decided last year,” said Phil Cox, the RGA’s executive director. “Continuity is a hallmark of RGA and Governor Christie – one of our party’s strongest national leaders – will continue the strong stewardship of Governor Jindal and prior chairmen.”

One senior Republican told CNN that the bout of campaigning was nothing more than “friendly competition” between the two governors.

Said another Republican, with a nod to the ambitions of both men: “There was a little back and forth. You know the personalities involved.”

Will Christie’s moment last?

One GOP operative familiar with the jockeying, however, said Jindal and his team were “a little frustrated” by Christie’s attempt to pry away a job that the Louisiana governor thought was rightfully his.

“It just kind of took people by surprise,” said the operative, who, like most of the people who spoke about the maneuvering, declined to go on the record discussing internal committee business.

“It came out of left field. It’s not how the organization was structured, really. The RGA had become a very congenial organization without a lot of internal politics. You don’t really shift things that are going well. Bobby had paid his dues. Was it a good move by Christie? Absolutely. It just rubbed some people the wrong way.”

The campaigning grew intense enough that McDonnell fired off an a internal note to his fellow governors urging them to keep their eyes on a more pressing challenge – the presidential election, then little more than a few weeks away.

Christie to GOP: ‘If being me isn’t good enough, then fine, I will go home’

It soon became clear, though, that “Christie had the votes,” one person familiar with the whip effort told CNN, citing Christie’s argument that it would be best for him to run the committee after securing re-election in New Jersey. “It just made sense,” one neutral GOP source said.

Other Christie backers on the committee pointed to his ever-growing star power, arguing that his media profile and impressive fundraising acumen would be serious boons for the committee in a busy election year.

As the dust began to settle in early October, McDonnell managed to broker a deal in which Jindal would run the committee in 2013, with Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker as his vice-chairman. Christie would take over the following year, with Jindal as vice-chair.

“The process worked itself out in a quick way and collegial way,” said one Republican with knowledge of the process. “It was a win-win, though it was probably a little more of a win for Christie.”

If there was any tension between Jindal and Christie, it wasn’t apparent at a news conference Wednesday in which Jindal patted his successor on the back.

“Next year is a very important year for the RGA,” Jindal told reporters in Arizona. “I think Chris is going to a great job. He’s going to do a great job raising money for the RGA. I think he is going to a great job campaigning across the country for our incumbents and our challengers as well.”