After Governor Chris Christie’s smashing electoral victory two months ago, and his “Elephant in the Room” Time magazine cover story, the 2016 Republican narrative centered on a “Christie against the Tea Party” theme. The reckless and vindictive behavior of many on the Governor’s staff (apparently without his direct knowledge) has the potential to be a Watergate-level train wreck in the Governor’s path to being the “moderate” alternative in the 2016 Republican presidential primaries.
This is being written the day after the press conference, where a saddened and less than bombastic Chris Christie announced the firing of his deputy chief of staff and claimed no foreknowledge of the Fort Lee lane closings four months ago. So, in our never-ending election cycle, it is not too early to speculate on how this scandal impacts the Republican presidential primary field of 2016, and who the winners might be.
The big early winners, in my opinion, are the billionaire Koch brothers and their conservative allies. No doubt their attack ad writers are gleefully beginning to craft anti-Christie ads and electoral strategies. Previously they may have focused on how to limit the Governor’s delegates in the early caucuses and primaries. Now they believe they can work publicly and privately to tear down Chris Christie’s stature throughout 2014 and into the fall of 2015 to the point where he may no longer harbor presidential ambitions. After all, how can a man become commander in chief of the most powerful nation on earth if his hand-selected staff and appointees run around behind his back bullying opponents and then lie to his face about it? He did himself no favors in the press conference when he claimed to “delegate great authority” and not be a micro-manager. And then there is the worst case scenario where future investigation and testimony may show Christie engineered some form of retaliation; in that case his governorship may be over as well as his presidential aspirations.
The second early winner is Hillary Clinton. The prospect of a bruising presidential campaign against a popular Republican governor from a blue state who had heroically stared down the tea party is now clearly diminished. And we all know the Clinton team can craft bare-knuckled political ads with the same gusto as the conservative billionaires unshackled by the Citizens United Supreme Court decision.
The third early winners are the likely conservative candidates lining up for the opening caucuses and primaries of 2016. The list is topped by Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Marco Rubio and Paul Ryan. If Christie is weakened, Jeb Bush could be encouraged, and the already small moderate primary vote could be split. If that occurs, all four conservatives may survive the first three weeks of the political season. In those first 20 days of the 2016 political calendar, the following seven states are slated (as of this writing) to hold their caucus or primary: Iowa, New Hampshire, Colorado, Minnesota, Missouri, Utah and Nevada. Five of those seven are heavily tilted toward the tea party. Rand Paul could win Iowa, Ryan could win New Hampshire and Minnesota, Rubio could pull out a victory in Colorado or Missouri, and firebrand Ted Cruz could be victorious in Utah and Nevada. Theoretically, Christie and Jeb Bush could be denied a victory in all of the early states, effectively ending their candidacies. It may be premature to speculate 24 months in advance, but the big four (Cruz, Ryan, Rubio and Rand Paul) are doing just that today.
The fourth winner is the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. Republicans need to pick up 6 Senate seats this November to become the majority party. There are 21 Democratic seats up for grabs this year, some in states Mitt Romney carried in 2012, but only 14 Republican seats in contention. As you recall, Republican primaries in 2010 and 2012 produced several tea party linked candidates who failed badly in the general elections. The DSCC would like nothing better than a repeat of that behavior in this spring’s senatorial primaries. The decline of Chris Christie could dishearten Republican moderates and embolden the tea party wing, increasing the Democrats’ chances of hanging on to the Senate this November. But the real prize for the DSCC is the November 2016 general election, where only 10 Democrats are defending their seats, but 23 Republicans are. With Christie at the top of the ticket, the Republicans could hope for some “down ballot” ticket-splitting by moderate Democrats, enough to blunt Democratic gains. But with a Ryan – Rubio ticket, or something similar, and with a big Democratic turnout, the Democrats would be poised to gain seats and even approach the “Holy Grail” of 60 they held after the 2008 election.
Will “Bridgegate” quickly dissipate and leave Christie relatively unscathed? That is doubtful, with the multi-pronged investigations looming and the media fascination at full throttle. The no-nonsense tough guy who is above micromanaging should have conveyed to his staff that discretion is the better part of (partisan) valor.