JERSEY CITY — When Donald Trump made his strange trip to a Hindu anti-terrorism rally in Edison, New Jersey, Chris Christie — the governor who is heading Trump’s transition team — was noticeably absent. Garden State leaders could only wonder whether Christie was laying low because of the unpopular presidential nominee’s hot-mic comments about women, or because of his own deepening problems stemming from the Bridgegate scandal.
Such is the condition of Christie’s career. Once a GOP star, his fortunes have plummeted since the high point of his landslide re-election in 2013, and now look to be nearing rock-bottom as an aide’s trial leads to embarrassing revelations about his possible complicity in the notorious lane closures at the George Washington Bridge.
Budget and infrastructure setbacks have wrecked his narrative of a renewed New Jersey.
His failed presidential bid made him a punchline in his deep-blue home state, and his subsequent embrace of Trump has only made things worse.
Christie is now in the awkward position of trying to distance himself from the candidate, even as he reportedly remains a key behind-the-scenes player. Since Trump’s taped comments about groping women surfaced, Christie has not appeared publicly for Trump, and pointedly said, when asked about Trump’s defiant responses to allegations of sexual harassment, that he could only answer for his own comments as a surrogate.
And looming over everything is the sordid election-season revenge plot known as Bridgegate, which has been thrust back into the headlines in recent weeks by the trial of two of Christie’s former subordinates — and which has gone even worse for the governor than generally expected.
One of the defendants, former Christie deputy chief of staff Bridget Kelly, not only painted the governor as a willing accomplice in the plan to close lanes to the George Washington Bridge, but as a bully who threw a water bottle at her because he didn’t like the format of an event she was planning. (She testified that he said, “What do you think I am, a fucking game show host?”)
Later, Christie’s chief strategist, Mike DuHaime, testified that he told Christie that Kelly and then-Deputy Chief of Staff Bill Stepien had knowledge of the lane closures at a time when Christie told the New Jersey press his staff were not involved.
It’s been enough to put a damper on whatever remaining hopes Christie might have had for a job in a Trump administration. As Rutgers political science professor Ross K. Baker said to POLITICO even before the recent revelations, Bridgegate has made him “the most improbable nominee to any cabinet post.”
Meanwhile, the governor appears to be taking his party down with him.
In all, the Republican minority in the Legislature has shrunk by six since the day Christie took office seven years ago, thanks in part to the governor’s refusal to campaign for Republican candidates backed by Democratic bosses with whom he is said to maintain a nonaggression pact. And it’s likely to get worse before he leaves, with Republican gubernatorial and legislative candidates facing stiff headwinds in 2017.
“I think Chris Christie has destroyed the Republican Party in New Jersey for a generation,” said Seton Hall political science professor Matt Hale, who said that the governor’s hard-right turn on policy to run for president also hurt New Jersey Republicans.
In the process, Christie may also have destroyed his own political currency.
Christie’s approval rating, once near 80 percent, now stands at a dismal 21, threatening to taint the already-disadvantaged Republicans who have just begun ramping up their campaign efforts to prepare for a post-Christie world.
The Bridgegate trial has merely highlighted the sinking-ship feeling that already existed, as Republican witnesses — including some who remain close to Christie — have contradicted or undermined the the governor’s account of the lead-up to the George Washington Bridge lane closings (as well as the findings of an $8 million dollar report commissioned by the Christie administration).
And in a separate scandal that grew out of the Bridgegate mess, Christie’s close confidant, former Port Authority Chairman David Samson, pleaded guilty to shaking down United Airlines to restart a flight from Newark to an airport close to his South Carolina vacation home.
Christie’s political leverage is at an all-time low, as evidenced by his agreement with the Democratic-controlled legislature to raise New Jersey’s famously low gas tax, and his isolation is at an all-time high, as demonstrated by the remarkable decision of his own lieutenant governor this week to urge voters to revolt against that very same agreement.
(Christie’s office responded that the comments from Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno must have been the result of a “misunderstanding.”)
The conspicuous lack of local Republican support for the governor now is a reflection of Christie’s own priorities during the six-odd years in which he enjoyed a political prosperity that his party didn’t get to share in.
The state GOP suffered as he built up his own campaign for president, paying a price in the polls as Christie veered right on issues from gun control — he went so far as to veto a large-caliber rifle ban that he had called for — to animal rights, when he vetoed a largely symbolic ban on pig gestation crates that was unpopular with Iowa farmers.
Most notable, perhaps, Christie hardened his rhetoric on immigration, an issue on which he had previously positioned himself as a moderate. Christie won the state’s Hispanic vote in 2013 in part by campaigning for a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. In his presidential campaign, he opposed it, calling such a pathway an “extreme way to go.”
Christie also reversed himself on the question of accepting Syrian refugees, by instructing state officials not to help with Syrian refugee settlement in New Jersey and memorably saying, in an interview with conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt, “I don’t think orphans under five are being, you know, should be admitted into the United States at this point.”
The party paid a more literal price for Christie’s ambitions, too, spending $230,000 on the governor’s private jet flights around the country in the run-up to the presidential campaign.
And as New Jersey showed signs of Christie fatigue, the governor seemed at times to indicate that the feeling was mutual.
In January, facing pressure over an oncoming blizzard, Christie reluctantly took a day off the campaign trail in New Hampshire to head to New Jersey, then quickly returned.
When a woman asked him why he wasn’t still in New Jersey when sections of the shore in Cape May County were dealing with severe flooding, Christie said, “Do you want me to go down there with a mop?” (Christie later said he believed the woman was an oppo plant.)
He ended his presidential campaign in February after finishing in sixth place in New Hampshire — the state he had staked his campaign on. Weeks later, he became the first former presidential candidate to endorse Trump. Despite being given the important role of leading Trump’s transition team, the governor’s appearances with the candidate were widely mocked and belittled.
With the Republican presidential ticket on course for a heavy defeat in New Jersey, the state’s GOP lawmakers have mostly tried to avoid talking about Trump altogether. Despite Christie’s high-profile speaking role at the Republican National Convention in August — memorable for its “lock her up” rhetoric about Hillary Clinton — just six New Jersey state senators, three Assembly members and one congressman showed up to the convention.
“What I will say as a Republican is that the Christie era is both infuriating and sad at the same time. I believe that in my heart,” said Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli, who is running for governor. “But here’s the bottom line: I’m a proud Republican. I believe in the party of Lincoln. I believe we’re the party of ideas and solutions and opportunity. And we will rise again. “
Ciattarelli is one of a few Republicans who has worked to distance himself from Christie over the years. (His likely rival for the Republican nomination in 2017 is Guadagno.)
Ironically, Christie’s potential damage to Republicans in 2017 stems from his courting of Democratic support in 2013 — a strategy intended to show off his bipartisan bona fides in the 2016 presidential race. The Fort Lee access lanes to the George Washington bridge were closed, after all, because its Democratic mayor would not endorse the governor.
“His entire Bridgegate meltdown was because he decided he wasn’t going to do a thing for Republicans, he wasn’t going to run for Republicans, and he had this crazy idea that the was going to get all these Democrats to support him and somehow that would help when he ran for president,” said state Sen. Michael Doherty, one of the few New Jersey Republicans who has been openly critical of the governor. “How did that work in 2016?”
Christie’s loyalists insist that the governor did help quite a bit in 2013, campaigning for candidates in North Jersey, in particular in Bergen County. But Democrats prevailed in redistricting in 2011, leaving Republicans with a map that had few pick up opportunities.
“We suffer from this lopsided map that is overly generous to the Democrats, and so it’s very hard to point to gains in the Legislature just because of the map,” said Christie confidant Bill Palatucci.
Palatucci, who began working in New Jersey politics in the 1980s, noted that Republicans weren’t able to win back the governorship even in 1989, after two terms of popular GOP Gov. Tom Kean.
“You can talk about the party, you can talk about the predecessor. But November of 2017, which is a long way off from right now, is very much candidate-dependent,” he said.
Mike DuHaime, who was Christie’s main strategist in his gubernatorial and presidential runs, said the state GOP had paid off its legal debts and that the Christie administration would leave it “in great shape from a lot of the infrastructure that’s built over the years.”
He also pointed out that despite losing the state legislative redistricting process, Republicans prevailed in redistricting the state’s U.S. House districts, giving them an equal number of seats to Democrats.
And Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr. said the governor’s “Fairness Formula” school funding plan has given his candidates a good footing to discuss property taxes and appeal to suburban voters.
“I think the environment will be good next year,” he said.
Conservative activist Steve Lonegan, who unsuccessfully ran against Christie in the 2009 gubernatorial primary, feels otherwise.
He thinks Bridgegate hurts, and that the gas tax makes things even worse.
“I’m pissed,” Lonegan said.
Lonegan predicted that Christie’s approval ratings would fall even further in the days and weeks to come.
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