New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie swears “there’s no baggage here” when it comes to a possible 2016 presidential run. But almost three-and-a-half months since “Bridgegate” broke into public view, Republican analysts and strategists are seeing it differently.
Christie once led the pack among GOP presidential hopefuls. But he has taken a beating in the polls and his reputation has faltered among the party faithful since questions emerged about his office’s connections to lane closures on the George Washington Bridge and the dispersal of hurricane relief funds.
Christie’s own internal investigation, conducted by a friendly law firm cost state taxpayers $1 million and concluded the governor was not involved, instead blaming others long associated with the bridge scandal. But federal prosecutors, a state legislative panel and now the Manhattan district attorney continue to dog Christie. Two ex-Christie advisers are seeking immunity in exchange for cooperating with those inquires, facts not lost on donors and the Republican establishment.
Christie’s presidential prospects are on “life support,” said GOP strategist Ford O’Connell. “Time is not on Christie’s side. As long as there’s a perception of wrongdoing, it’s going to be very hard for him to win the nomination.”
Republican flame thrower Roger Stone, who worked for both the Nixon and Reagan Administrations, went further. “I think he’s toast.”
“On top of whatever really happened regarding the bridge, spending [a lot of money] for a phony [internal] investigation in which no one is under oath is an issue of its own. Conservative New Hampshire primary voters are going to say, ‘This is not how I want my money spent.’”
Not everyone sees it that way, however. David Winston, a strategist and former adviser to Newt Gingrich said: “At this point without anything to contradict what Christie has said, he’s absolutely in the middle of the race if he wants to be.”
So far, the poll numbers in early voting states aren’t promising for Christie. The latest RealClearPolitics average of polling data surrounding the Iowa Republican presidential caucus shows Mike Huckabee with a 13.3% lead. Christie came in fifth behind Rand Paul, Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz. When it comes to the New Hampshire Republican presidential primary average, Paul is in first with 15.3% with Christie trailing in second at 12.7%.
A recent Rutgers-Eagleton poll showed 41% of New Jersey voters disapprove of his job performance. And the majority – 63% – said Christie’s own internal review was not objective. Just 22% believe Christie’s explanation of what happened.
Christie’s leadership of the Republican Governor’s Association has given him opportunities to travel outside his state, raise money and continue to build a national profile. He has met with donors in Florida, Texas and was recently in Las Vegas meeting with Republican mega donor Sheldon Adelson. And he has managed to keep one most important donor, Ken Langone, close. The Home Depot co-founder recently characterized the bridge scandal to Buzzfeed as a “rough patch,” and said while former Florida Governor Jeb Bush “would be a superb president, I think Christie would connect better.”
Stone said Langone’s support for Christie was the exception rather than the rule and that that Lagone “may be the only one sticking with Christie.”
Republican strategist John Feehery said that while the latest revelations “make it significantly more difficult for him to be seen a credible presidential candidate,” Christie is “still a talented politician who has tremendous potential.”
Christie was never a shoo-in. The Republican governor of a largely Democratic state, Christie has come under fire from the far right, which has long considered him a RINO—Republican in Name Only. Christies warm embrace of President Obama following Hurricane Sandy and just days before the 2012 presidential election rankled Republicans, some of whom claimed it contributed to the Mitt Romney’s presidential loss.
After the bridge allegations first surfaced, some used the opportunity to pile on Christie, including Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham who is facing a primary challenge from Tea Party candidates. The South Carolina lawmaker told reporters: “You know, being candid and forthright and speaking truth to power is one narrative, but the other narrative is, you know, he’s a transactional politician, he rewards his friends and punishes his enemies.”
Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, who is also positioning himself for a possible presidential tun, took a subtler swipe. He told reporters that when he’s stuck in traffic jams, “I know how angry I am….I’m always wondering who did this to me.” And conservative radio show host Glenn Beck labeled the scandal “Fat & Furious,” declaring “conservatives need to run from Chris Christie.” The only “good news” to come from the allegations, Beck said, is that “this just ended his political career for president.”
Later, some Christie allies offered support, albeit tepid, including House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal.
“The perception of the abuse of government power is troubling for a lot of Republicans,” said O’Connell. “Christie was always going to have a problem with grassroots conservatives, but this gave them one more arrow in their quiver. Much of his selling point was ‘I can win a general election.’” Bridgegate disrupts that, he said.
Christie recently told ABC News that he hasn’t made a decision about a 2016 run and won’t do so for another year. One thing he is sure about: “It won’t have anything to do with what’s happened in the past 10 weeks,” he said.