New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is heading back to Iowa next month for a conservative summit co-hosted by GOP Rep. Steve King and Citizens United – stoking further speculation that the Republican is all but certainly running for president in 2016.
The appearance at the Iowa Freedom Summit on Jan. 24 will be Christie's first visit to the state—which kicks off the presidential nominating process --- since the midterm elections. Christie, as head of the Republican Governors Association, successfully stumped for a number of candidates during the election cycle, including Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad. Christie also headlined King's annual pheasant hunt fundraiser back in October.
RELATED: Fed charges expected in 'Bridgegate'
A number of former and potential future Republican presidential hopefuls will also speak at the summit, including Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Dr. Ben Carson.
A spokesman for Christie referred a request for comment about the Iowa trip to Mike DuHaime, a political adviser to the governor. DuHaime did not immediately respond.
News of the Iowa visit comes as the state legislative panel investigating the George Washington Bridge lane closure scandal released an interim report on Monday, saying it found no conclusive evidence linking Christie to the plot carried out by some of the governor's former staffers and allies, seemingly for political retribution.
But Christie isn’t necessarily in the clear just yet. A federal investigation into so-called “Bridgegate” is ongoing, and NBC New York has reported that at least half a dozen potential federal indictments may be handed down to former Christie staffers and former Port Authority officials in connection with the scheme. Those indictment could come as early as January, sources close to the investigation told NBC New York, and could include charges related to an apparent conspiracy to cover up the plot.
Just how those potential federal indictments affect Christie, should he decide to run for president, remains to be seen.
Ben Dworkin, the director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University, said what matters is just how close those indicted –if they are at all -- are to the governor. Even then, “the closing of a couple lanes to a bridge is not going to be the dominant issue for Republican primary voters in New Hampshire or Iowa.” Dworkin added, “Gov. Christie’s primary opponents for the Republican nomination will probably mention this issue but it won’t be their major attack. Bridgegate makes Christie seem like a petty politician, which makes him a rather ordinary politician when his cache as a leader is that he is anything but ordinary.” Dworkin argued Christie’s bigger concern is New Jersey’s struggling economy and is “the bigger issue that he’ll have to defend himself on.”
Patrick Murray, a New Jersey political analyst and director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, called the indictments a “real wild card” because it’s possible any potential charges may not have anything to do the lane closure scandal but other controversial issues, including land deal with the Port Authority or misuse of Hurricane Sandy relief funds.
“But if they are indictments on issues we already know – like if a couple of Christie appointees decided to close the bridge—that’s not going to be news to anybody as long as it’s just those two people,” said Murray, referring to Christie’s former deputy chief of staff Bridget Ann Kelly and former Port Authority official David Wildstein. “I think it will be a minor bullet for the governor.”
Emails made public in the lead-up to the September 2013 lane closures showed Kelly emailing Wildstein, “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” referring to the city on the New Jersey side of the bridge. Wildstein then responded “Got it.”
Christie has denied any prior knowledge of the plot and consequently fired Kelly. Wildstein later resigned amid the controversy. Still, Democrats have skewered the notion that Christie was unaware of the lane closures when they happened. The Democratic National Committee said this week that the governor deserves blame because Christie “created the culture within his administration that led to Bridgegate.”
Christie's popularity ratings took a huge hit in the aftermath of the scandal, but those numbers have since stabilized. The governor is seemingly forging ahead with 2016 plans – and trying to woo Iowa voters along the way.
RELATED: How Christie won the midterms
Late last month, Christie vetoed a pig-welfare bill—backed by the majority of constituents in New Jersey—but disliked in Iowa, the country’s largest pork producer. Branstad said he spoke to Christie before the veto was issued to make both his concerns and the Iowa agricultural industry’s known. The Garden State governor insisted he wasn’t playing politics with the veto but that the legislation – which easily passed in the state legislature with bipartisan support, was a “solution in search of a problem.”
Christie also seems to be trying to rally the GOP base as a whole. Last week, the governor was in Canada, where the trumpeted the Keystone XL pipeline – a project that has wide support from the right. The trip also fueled speculation that Christie is trying to beef up his foreign policy resume, as the governor is seen with few foreign policy credentials. Christie has visited just two other countries as governor—Israel in 2012 and Mexico in September. This year, the governor—an establishment Republican governing a blue state -- has also hedged right on a slew of issues: He vetoed gun control legislation, declared that the gay marriage debate isn’t over and took a more hardline stance on Israel.
Christie has said he doesn’t intend to make a decision on 2016 until sometime early next year.
Unlike the Democratic field, which shows former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as the clear front-runner for the party’s nomination, the potential GOP 2016 field is extremely crowded. According to the average of polling data surrounding the race, compiled by RealClearPolitics, Christie is tied for third place with Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky. Both accrued 10.8% support, behind former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s 14.3% and Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin’s 11.2%. Huckabee trails in fourth place with 9.7% .