New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is in Iowa, and unsurprisingly, his appearance in that critical presidential caucus state is generating buzz that he’s considering a 2016 run. But back home, all is not well for Christie.
The so-called “Bridgegate” scandal still hangs over the Republican’s head. In New Jersey, a top aide to the governor testified on Thursday before a legislative panel investigating the George Washington Bridge lane closures.
Like the four aides who gave testimony before her, Regina Egea, Christie’s incoming chief of staff, insisted to the committee that she was not aware and did not participate in the September lane closures. The move appears to have been orchestrated by some of the governor’s staffers and allies for political retribution.
“I had no prior knowledge, no participation in the lane realignment at the George Washington Bridge,” said Egea, who previously served as the director of Christie’s Authorities unit, which oversees the agency that controls the bridge.
Emails made public showed Egea was aware of the traffic jams caused by the lane closures, and that she was warned the closures may have been illegal. She insisted to the panel, however, that at the time she was under the impression that they were the result of a traffic study, a theory that has largely been debunked. Egea said she did not flag the issue to her bosses because she was under the impression that Bill Baroni, the Port Authority’s deputy director, was taking care of the problem.
Christie’s administration is currently under state and federal investigation for the lane closures. The governor has also insisted he had no prior knowledge of the scheme and has since fired a top aide and cut ties with his former campaign manager. Still, his popularity ratings have taken a hit.
Since a Christie-commissioned internal review (which Democrats panned as a "whitewash") cleared the governor in March of any wrongdoing, he has been ramping up his travel schedule as chairman of the Republican Governor’s Association. Last month, he was in New Hampshire, which holds the first-in-the-nation presidential primary. He also has plans to go to the early voting state of South Carolina later this summer. Those trips are sparking speculation that he is seriously considering a bid for the Oval Office. Christie has said he won’t make a final decision until next year.
During his first stop in the Hawkeye State in the city of Waukee, Christie was asked at a private fundraiser how he will recover from “Bridgegate,” according to the Des Moines Register. Guests — who paid $25,000 ticket — recounted the governor’s answer, reporting that Christie said something to the effect of, “You go to work every day and continue to tell the truth, even it isn’t pleasant news.”
In Iowa, Christie is scheduled to attend a fundraiser for state House Speaker Kraig Paulsen in Cedar Rapids. He’ll then join Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad to meet and greet state residents at a restaurant in Marion, followed by an event billed as “An Evening at the Fair” in Davenport.
Christie has said the trip has nothing to do with 2016 and that he’s merely fundraising for candidates in the 2014 midterm elections. "Everyone will keep asking, and by the way it’s pretty nice to be asked. You know? Because if you really stink, they don’t ask…the fact is that you should be aware of people, in my opinion, who are overanxious to make that decision before they need to. That would it seem would indicate to me ambition before wisdom," he told CNBC’s John Harwood at an event in New York City on Wednesday.
Not all Republicans in early voting states, including Iowa, are a fan of Christie, who is seen by many as too moderate on issues like gun control, climate change and gay marriage. In fact, a new NBC News Marist poll found that 33% of GOP voters in Iowa and 31% in New Hampshire view him negatively.
The conservative Judicial Crisis Network also took aim at Christie this week, spending $75,000 on ads airing during his trip that criticize him for backing “liberal” judges in the Garden State.
The left held its own press event on Thursday to criticize Christie in Iowa. Democratic National Committee Vice Chair R.T. Rybak, a former Minneapolis mayor, told msnbc that the governor is in Iowa because, “If you’re Chris Christie, you’re probably trying to see if people will forgive you enough to let you run for president.” He added, however, that “people in this part of the country put a high premium of looking people in the eye and finding if they are telling the truth. Chris Christie can give a good interview and act like he’s telling it like it is, but day after day it becomes more clear he’s trying to pull something over people and using his office to punish people who don’t agree with him.” Former Iowa Lt. Gov. Patty Judge joined Rybak at the event.
The last time Christie visited Iowa was in December 2011 to stump for Mitt Romney ahead of the 2012 presidential election. Employing the brash style that he’s known for, he told a crowd in West Des Moines that if they didn’t vote for the former Massachusetts governor, “I will be back Jersey-style, people. I will be back.”
In recent weeks, Christie – an establishment Republican governing a blue state – has seemingly hedged right to appeal to conservatives in states like Iowa. He vetoed gun control legislation, declared that the gay marriage debate isn’t over and has gone after Obama’s foreign policy.
Ironically, presumed 2016 Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton is in New Jersey signing copies of her new memoir “Hard Choices.”
If Christie does make a bid and manages to earn the GOP nomination, he could take on the former secretary of state. A recent Quinnipiac University poll showed Clinton with a decent lead in a hypothetical head-to-head matchup. If the election were held today, Clinton would get 47% of the vote compared to 38% for Christie.