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Christie and McDonnell: From stardom to scandal

Christie and McDonnell, the one-time rising stars of the GOP, have seemingly fallen from grace.
Chris Christie
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and his son Andrew, attend a prayer service in celebration of the governor's inauguration at the New Hope Baptist Church on Jan. 21, 2014 in Newark, N.J.

What a difference a few years can make.

In November 2009, Chris Christie and Bob McDonnell became the toast of the GOP, sweeping to victory in off-year gubernatorial elections in states that had gone for Obama just 12 months before, and that had been led by Democrats for years. They quickly earned reputations as no-nonsense governors willing to put politics aside. Each man found himself on Mitt Romney’s vice presidential short list in 2012. And each was surely pleased to see his name bandied about as a potential 2016 presidential contender.

Fast forward to today, and you'll find these once-rising stars have fallen from grace with an embarrassing splat.

“It’s been an awful last two weeks for the GOP’s stars from the Class of 2009,” notes NBC News’ First Read.

Christie is waist-deep in allegations that his administration abused its power, with federal and state investigators looking into whether his top aides caused traffic jams, seemingly for political retribution. Several Democratic lawmakers have come forward to accuse the governor of political bullying. The governor is also being probed for the potential misuse of Hurricane Sandy relief money to produce tourism ads featuring his family during his bid for a second term in office. 

Then you have McDonnell. The once-popular former governor and his wife, Maureen, have been slapped with federal charges for allegedly taking tens of thousands of dollars in gifts and loans from a supporter who sought help from the state government.

The indictment came just 10 days after McDonnell left office, making way for Democrat Terry McAuliffe. The former chairman of the Democratic National Committee narrowly beat Ken Cuccinelli, a Republican, who was also hurt by the gift-giving scandal. Cuccinelli, who served as McDonnell’s attorney general, apologized last fall for taking gifts from the same businessman.

Now there's talk that Christie should step down from his position as head of the Republican Governor’s Association. “It makes sense for him to step aside,” Cuccinelli said this week on CNN.

The Republican Governor’s Association did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Christie has apologized for the September lane closures on the George Washington Bridge, but he has denied any involvement in or knowledge of the scheme. 

McDonnell said on Thursday that while he regrets accepting the gifts and loans (which he has given back), he did nothing illegal.

How deep the governors’ troubles are, and what it means for their political future, remains to be seen. Will McDonnell face jail time? Will Christie be directly linked to the lane closures? No doubt they have a rough road ahead of them -- but are they toast?

Marina Ein -- a crisis public relations expert who helped former Democratic Rep. Gary Condit, who was busted for having an extramarital affair with an intern named Chandra Levy, and temporarily (and falsely) suspected in her disappearance and murder -- said it will be very difficult for McDonnell to make a comeback.

“I don’t see him having a second act here…No matter what the legalities are, the optics will be very difficult for him to overcome,” Ein said.

Christie, meanwhile, faces a constant drip of additional accusations from Democratic lawmakers. And more information is bound to bubble up, as 20 subpoenas were served by a special New Jersey legislative committee investigating the bridge plot. But, Ein said, the Garden State governor has an opportunity.

“He needs to disassemble a culture of retaliation and retribution if that’s what’s been created and truly pursue bipartisanship…he’s got a whole new administration in front of him and has to prove he can be that kind of leader,” she said.