Republican Leaders Assess Scandal Damage to Christie

RGA finance chairman: “My reaction — why the hell would anyone do this?”

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie speaks at his election night event after winning a second term at the Asbury Park Convention Hall on November 05, 2013 in Asbury Park, New Jersey. Incumbent Governor Chris Christie defeated his Democratic opponent Barbara Buono by a commanding margin.
National Journal
Alex Roarty
Jan. 9, 2014, midnight

Gov. Chris Christie was mas­ter­ful in trans­lat­ing his de­cis­ive reelec­tion in New Jer­sey in­to buzz over his pres­id­en­tial po­ten­tial. But the North Jer­sey traffic scan­dal could threaten sup­port from the Re­pub­lic­an opin­ion lead­ers and money­men who have been so cru­cial in fuel­ing his na­tion­al boom­let.

Party lead­ers have treated Christie like their white-knight-in-wait­ing since his reelec­tion tri­umph in Novem­ber, view­ing him as a blue-state Re­pub­lic­an who can over­come the Demo­crats’ re­cent lock on the White House. But the pun­it­ive ac­tion taken by Christie’s deputy chief of staff is be­gin­ning to raise fresh con­cerns about Christie’s tem­pera­ment — and a more care­ful reex­am­in­a­tion of his dec­ades-long past as a pub­lic of­fi­cial. The gov­ernor, in fact, in­vited such scru­tiny when he denied late Wed­nes­day hav­ing any know­ledge of his ad­min­is­tra­tion en­gin­eer­ing a traffic jam for polit­ic­al re­tri­bu­tion.

So far, GOP ad­visers agree that Christie’s sup­port with the es­tab­lish­ment re­mains firm, es­pe­cially if no new dam­aging de­vel­op­ments emerge in the com­ing days. But for a can­did­ate whose pro-Obama for­ays and ideo­lo­gic­al apostas­ies have already ali­en­ated parts of the con­ser­vat­ive base, and for someone who would face a fierce pres­id­en­tial com­pet­i­tion from op­pon­ents run­ning to his right, any creep­ing weak­ness among his own base could prove dam­aging.

“It’s fair to say that even es­tab­lish­ment politicos and money people are go­ing to have con­cerns about the stor­ies that will con­tin­ue to come out about the way he gov­erns,” said Keith Ap­pell, a GOP con­sult­ant aligned with con­ser­vat­ive act­iv­ists. “Even they un­der­stand this will not play well at all in primar­ies and caucuses among rank-and-file Re­pub­lic­ans, grass­roots con­ser­vat­ives, and tea party sup­port­ers.”

For most of his first term, Christie’s hard-char­ging tem­pera­ment was his biggest as­set. Vir­al videos of his angry con­front­a­tions with his own con­stitu­ents made him a Re­pub­lic­an star, build­ing his repu­ta­tion as a straight-talk­ing lead­er who didn’t suf­fer fools.

The scan­dal — es­pe­cially dam­aging de­tails such as the non­chal­ant way his aides mocked a loc­al may­or’s pleas for help — threaten to trans­form Christie’s im­age in­to something else en­tirely: a dis­sem­bling bully. It’s not a new concept; The New York Times sug­ges­ted as much just last month. But those per­cep­tions were largely con­fined to crit­ics dur­ing his first term and after 22-point reelec­tion romp in Novem­ber.

Not any­more.

“His polit­ic­al repu­ta­tion risks fall­ing on the oth­er side of the knife point,” one seni­or GOP strategist said. “A repu­ta­tion for be­ing a tough-talk­ing, no-non­sense gov­ernor is now at risk of turn­ing in­to a thin-skinned politi­cian who ex­acts re­tri­bu­tion on people for even the smal­lest slights.”

It’s not just Christie’s tem­pera­ment that will be re­valu­ated. His re­cord will re­ceive sim­il­ar scru­tiny. It’s re­portedly been a prob­lem for him in the past. In their book Double Down: Game Change 2012, John Heil­mann and Mark Halper­in de­tailed con­cerns with­in Mitt Rom­ney’s cam­paign that Christie’s back­ground dis­qual­i­fied him as a vice pres­id­en­tial nom­in­ee. (Sources close to the Rom­ney cam­paign dis­pute that char­ac­ter­iz­a­tion.)

For now, the ab­sence of any evid­ence link­ing Christie per­son­ally to the or­der in­su­lates him from some of the dam­age. Even some of Christie’s back­ers, while main­tain­ing they don’t think he had a dir­ect role in the scan­dal, say they are astoun­ded by the pet­ti­ness and stu­pid­ity of the lane clos­ures.  “That was my re­ac­tion — why the hell would any­one do this?” asked Fred Malek, a long­time GOP op­er­at­ive and fin­ance chair­man of the Re­pub­lic­an Gov­ernors As­so­ci­ation. “Who would do such a thing? The risk-re­ward is so way out of pro­por­tion.”

For all the risk posed, many GOP lead­ers are con­vinced that as long as Christie isn’t im­plic­ated fur­ther, he’ll es­cape the con­tro­versy with only minor scratches. The fun­da­ment­als of his ap­peal — a demon­strated con­nec­tion with blue-state voters and strong lead­er­ship qual­it­ies — are too strong to ig­nore.

Henry Bar­bour poin­ted out that his own uncle, the former Mis­sis­sippi Gov­ernor Haley Bar­bour, car­ried with him a pos­sibly dam­aging his­tory as a lob­by­ist when he first ran for gov­ernor. But, ul­ti­mately, voters care about more per­tin­ent is­sues.

“Look there was plenty to shoot at,” the young­er Bar­bour said. “But Haley con­vinced people he could do bet­ter than the in­cum­bent. And at the end of the day, they want someone who can get things done. And they’re really tired of the fin­ger-point­ing.”

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