This week, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is crisscrossing Iowa. Officially, the visit is a fundraising trip tied to his side job as chairman of the Republican Governors Association. But like most any big-time politician choosing to spend some of the summer in the first caucus state, the visit is drawing the kind of speculation—and attacks—befitting a potential presidential contender.
Take the Judicial Crisis Network, which has seized the chance to target him with online ads and a website criticizing him for failing to turn the New Jersey Supreme Court into a bastion of right-wing judicial activism. JCN has established itself as significant player in judicial nomination fights and elections over the past several years, and has strong ties to conservative factions that don't trust the governor's record on social issues—and who would prefer a 2016 nominee more in line with the evangelical strain of the GOP.
The online ads take Christie to task for reappointing—gasp!—a Democrat as the chief justice of the state's supreme court, and criticize him for failing to live up to earlier campaign promises to remake the court as a conservative body.
The gripes about Christie's judicial appointments are pretty bogus. He's a Republican governor of a democratic state, and he's been thwarted again and again in his attempts to install conservatives on the high court: only three of his six nominees have been able to get past the Democratic controlled state legislature's judiciary committee. One of those nominees only got through because Christie agreed to a deal where he re-nominated the aforementioned sitting chief justice, a Democrat.
In a response to the ads, one of Christie's top advisers has argued that JCN is a Johnny-come-lately to New Jersey's nomination battles, suggesting that they don't really care about the composition of the court—but care plenty about dissing Christie. "This group has been noticeably absent from any judicial fight we've had in New Jersey, showing up only to criticize after the fights are over," Mike DuHaime said in a CNN appearance.
As DuHaime's complaint suggests, the Judicial Crisis Network's campaign is likely just another shot across the bow by social conservatives who think Christie is too liberal on issues like gay marriage and abortion, and don't want to see him become the GOP nominee for president in 2016. Indeed, the people behind the organization seem like just the sort who would much rather see a President Rick Santorum than a President Christie.
The JCN was founded by Gary Marx, who wooed family values voters for the 2004 Bush-Cheney campaign, organizing church-sponsored voter drives in Ohio. According to Right Wing Watch, he was encouraged to start the organization, originally called the Judicial Confirmation Network, by Jay Sekulow, a veteran Christian soldier. As president of the American Center for Law and Justice, Sekulow has litigated numerous church-state cases before the US Supreme Court, including a recent one that allowed a Utah park to keep a Ten Commandments statute installed.
In 2004, Marx joined with Wendy Long, a former clerk for US Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, to set up the Judicial Confirmation Network to bolster President Bush's efforts to install staunch social conservatives on the federal bench. When Obama was elected, the group changed its name and focus to blocking the new president's nominees. (Marx went on to spend three years as executive director of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, a conservative evangelical group founded by Ralph Reed.* Long left the JCN in 2012 to pursue an unsuccessful GOP Senate campaign against New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a Democrat.)
JCN also has close ties to the anti-gay marriage movement, sharing a treasurer with the National Organization for Marriage. Indeed, in a piece published this week by the National Review Online in coordination with the campaign bashing Christie's judges, the Judicial Crisis Network's current director, Carrie Severino, wrote that Christie's "conservative" justices took part in the court's unanimous decision last year to allow same-sex marriage in New Jersey. She also contends that Christie's most recent nominee has a record of being pro-choice. Severino—who is also a former Thomas clerk—concludes, "If these are Christie's conservative nominees, then Christie's definition of a conservative sounds an awful lot like a liberal."
Christie is likely to see similar attacks as he makes further steps towards a 2016 campaign after the ignominy of Bridgegate. He'll be in New Hampshire later this month.
Correction: The original version of this article incorrectly stated that Gary Marx is currently the head of the Faith and Freedom Coalition. Marx left that post in December 2013 and now runs a political consulting firm, Madison Strategies.