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Enough about 2016: Can Chris Christie keep his governorship?

The big question may not be if Christie can still run for president. It's whether he can hang onto his current job.
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie during a Super Bowl event, Feb. 1, 2013 in Times Square, New York, N.Y.
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie during a Super Bowl event, Feb. 1, 2013 in Times Square, New York, N.Y.

It wasn't so long ago that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie was a popular Republican in a big blue state with big 2016 dreams. But with the twin scandals of Bridgegate and his handling of Superstorm Sandy recovery money, the real question may now be whether he can even hang onto his current job.

With former Port Authority official David Wildstein's new claim that  “evidence exists” showing Christie knew about the politically motivated lane closings on the George Washington Bridge back in September, several Jersey State politicians are already floating the dreaded “I” word: impeachment.

State Sen. Raymond Lesniak told msnbc that if Wildstein’s allegations prove true, the state Assembly would “have to issue articles of impeachment.” The Democrat said there is “reasonable suspicion that a series of crimes may have been committed by the governor.”

The editorial board of the Star-Ledger is calling for Christie to either step down or be impeached if the new accusations prove true.

John Wisinewski, the head of the New Jersey Assembly panel probing the lane closures, has said it’s “not credible” that Christie was unaware of the plot and that impeachment does become a possibility if it can be proved Christie had direct involvement. He has since softened his rhetoric, telling such talk is premature. New Jersey Democratic Rep. Bill Pascrell called the  letter, in which Wildstein’s lawyer claims he has the evidence, “devastating” for Christie.

New Jersey’s impeachment process echoes the federal model. The state Assembly would have to vote for impeachment by a majority vote of its members. Then, the impeachment is tried in the Senate, with a two-thirds vote required to convict and remove the governor.

Frank Askin, a professor of law and director of the Constitutional Litigation Clinic at Rutgers School of Law, said what’s interesting about the state’s constitution is a  governor can be impeached for a “misdemeanor,” although it’s “unclear what the misdemeanor provision means” and is open to interpretation. When asked if the lane closure plan – if Christie is linked to it – could be interpreted as a misdemeanor, Askin said “I’d certainly think so.”

For a month, the  governor has vehemently denied any knowledge of the lane closings. And he’s sticking to the story, despite the drip, drip, drip over the last month of new allegations, including that his office abused its power. On Friday,  Democratic Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, who Christie staffers may have been trying to punish by creating the traffic jams when Sokolich did not endorse the governor, painted a further picture of the governor’s team pushing quid pro quo. Sokolich told the Bergen Record that Christie aides tried to woo him to endorse the governor over the course of two years, offering the borough Port Authority funded shuttle buses, snow plowing, pothole repair, and more.

Christie’s in legal hot water. Numerous state and federal agencies are investigating the lane closure scheme. Seventeen allies of Christie, in addition to his office and his 2013 re-reelection campaign, have been subpoenaed by a state committee and were ordered to hand over documents by Monday. Wisniewski—who’s spearheading the state investigation into the traffic jams -- said the subpoena documents were coming in on a “rolling basis” after several asked for extensions. He said it was not clear when all the paperwork would be filed.

Meanwhile, prospects for a 2016 race are fading fast. Christie's now focusing on damage control, not a five-year plan. For instance, in New Hampshire – a moderate Northeastern state that would be central to a Christie primary strategy in 2016 -- there is no sign that he's building a political operation there.

“There are no plans to come to the state, but we’d certainly welcome him,” said Ryan Williams, an adviser to the New Hampshire Republican Party.  Meanwhile, Bobby Jindal, the Republican governor of Louisiana who also has is eyes on 2016, is heading to the Granite State next month.

Christie is maintaining a busy travel schedule, but it’s seemingly to shore up both local and national support for the Republican Governor’s Association, which he chairs. And so far, many of his fellow GOPers are keeping their distance.

When Christie went to Dallas and Fort Worth on Thursday for RGA events, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and likely GOP gubernatorial nominee Greg Abbott steered clear.

When Christie traveled to Florida a few weeks ago for his first out-of-state trip since so-called Bridegate, Sunshine State Gov. Rick Scott, who’s up for re-election, did not arrange any joint public appearances with his fellow Republican.

On Feb. 11, Christie will appear at an event in Chicago for the RGA.  And next month, he’ll speak at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington after being denied a speaking slot last year.

He also plans to address the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce members at an event in Washington, D.C. on Feb. 13. And at the end of the month, on Feb. 25., he’ll present his much-anticipated state budget. It's clear he's trying to focus on the kitchen table issues -- jobs and the economy -- that made him popular in the state to begin with.

To some extent, that may work. Assemblyman John Bruzichelli, a Democrat who sits on the budget committee, called Christie's troubles a “distraction” but said it would not take away from lawmakers passing a budget.

Michael Egenton, senior vice president of the state’s Chamber of Commerce, dismissed the concern that Christie’s troubles would distract him from the task at hand. “This governor has been pro-business and has set forth an economic agenda we’ve been very supportive of,” he said, adding that “without a doubt” it will give Christie the opportunity to extol upon what he cares about instead of being dragged down in the lane closure scandal.

Some Republicans seem to be throwing Christie a lifeline, even though several on the far right initially used the bridge scandal as a chance to beat up on Christie, who they’ve always seen as a RINO – Republican In Name Only. Jindal and Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin have all cautioned against a rush to judgment.

What remains to be seen is if Christie can accomplish his legislative goals, despite being waist-deep in allegations that his office abused its power. It’s “almost guaranteed” Christie’s ability to push the legislation he wants will be kneecapped, said Brigid Harrison, a political science professor at Montclair State University.

Christie, at his State of the State address, said he wanted to extend the school day and year, beef up the state’s bail laws and renewed his call for tax reform. “So much of his ability to garner bipartisan support rested in his own popularity. Now that that popularity has declined significantly, there’s very little incentive for Democrats to embrace his agenda,” Harrison said. 

She added: “The response to subpoenas and legal strategizing has to be time consuming. You’re taking time away from the negotiating and the arm twisting to get policy done.”

Christie’s approval ratings, both nationally and statewide, have taken a big hit since his administration became embroiled in controversy. A recent Wall Street Journal/NBC poll found more Americans view the Republican negatively that positively, by a 29% to 22% margin. It’s a big reversal from October, when 33% viewed him positively versus 17% who viewed him negatively.

Meanwhile, a Rasmussen Reports survey showed that 54% of New Jersey voters believe it’s “at least somewhat likely” that Christie was aware of the lane closures. And the majority – 56%-- said Christie should resign as head of their state if it turns out Christie knew about the plan beforehand. 

The words President Christie may be a pipedream.

Republican strategist Roger Stone, who worked for both the Nixon and Reagan administrations, said Christie is “done as a presidential candidate. In presidents, we look for inner serenity, balance, magnanimosity, a president of all people. We want Ronald Reagan. We want Barack Obama, who frankly comes across as a much nicer guy. We don’t want hot and angry.”

More on the Christie scandal, from Hardball with Chris Matthews: