Chris Christie headed to Portland Wednesday for ‘special announcement’

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie swings through Becky's Diner in Portland with Gov. Paul LePage in this May 2014 photo. BDN file photo by Troy Bennett.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie swings through Becky’s Diner in Portland with Gov. Paul LePage in this May 2014 photo. BDN file photo by Troy Bennett.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who on Tuesday announced his candidacy for president, will arrive at Becky’s Diner in Portland at 10 a.m. Wednesday, according to his official campaign schedule.

Christie was in New Hampshire for a town hall forum Tuesday evening, when several journalists following him on the campaign trail first reported his Maine detour.

Christie altered his schedule to include a stop at Becky’s for an “special announcement event,” prompting speculation that Maine’s Republican Gov. Paul LePage would throw his weight behind Christie’s campaign.

Becky Rand, owner of the diner, said Tuesday night that she got a call from a member of Christie’s campaign staff earlier in the day, asking if she’d be willing once again to host Christie and LePage. The two governors were at Becky’s last year when Christie, who is chairman of the Republican Governors Association, came to Maine to stump for LePage’s re-election.

“All the politicians are welcome to come here and shake hands” with her customers, Rand said Tuesday. She said she expected a big crowd Wednesday morning, and lots of reporters. “I’m just hoping for a parking space tomorrow,” she said.

Though LePage’s endorsement of Christie is not yet confirmed — LePage’s office didn’t return a call for comment late Tuesday night — it seems like a fait accompli.

Christie and LePage have described themselves as close friends and the RGA chairman stumped and fundraised for LePage four times during his re-election campaign last year. According to campaign finance reports, the RGA spent $5.1 million to help elect LePage, the most spent by any group on any candidate in 2014.

“It’s always crucial and very important to have the support of your colleagues,” LePage said of Christie in May last year. “Chris Christie is a leader in the Republican ranks, not only in the RGA but in the Republican Party as a whole. I’m always honored to have him here. It’s a humbling experience to be able to work with Chris.”

LePage’s backing could help Christie win over conservative voters, a powerful force in primary campaigns, who have been suspicious of Christie’s occasional bipartisanship in Democrat-leaning New Jersey, such as his decision to expand Medicaid in his state, a key pillar in Democratic President Barack Obama’s health reform law.

Christie, who like LePage is known for a brash style adored by supporters and scorned by opponents, was once viewed as a front-runner for his party’s nomination in 2016, but is now considered a long shot. That’s due in part to the “Bridgegate” scandal of 2013, when aides orchestrated the closing of approach lanes for the George Washington Bridge connecting New Jersey and New York City, the busiest bridge in the country.

Critics said the closings were political retribution against a Democratic New Jersey mayor who turned down a request that he endorse Christie’s re-election campaign. Christie has disavowed knowledge of the closures and a  federal judge in New Jersey on Monday dismissed a class-action lawsuit filed by people stuck in traffic in the bridge lane closings.

The sudden schedule change means Christie will will be the first 2016 presidential candidate to visit the Pine Tree State, upstaging Democrat Bernie Sanders — a U.S. senator from Vermont who is scheduled to visit Portland on Monday — for the honors.

After his visit in Maine, Christie will return to New Hampshire for a house party in Bristol at 4 p.m. and another town hall in Ashland at 6 p.m. Christie has events scheduled in the New Hampshire through Independence Day.

This post contains reporting from Reuters reporter Luciana Lopez in Livingston, New Jersey.

Mario Moretto

About Mario Moretto

Mario Moretto has been a Maine journalist, in print and online publications, since 2009. He joined the Bangor Daily News in 2012, first as a general assignment reporter in his native Hancock County and, now, in the State House. Mario left the BDN in 2015.