For New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, this was supposed to be the time when his national political stature accelerated toward the 2016 presidential race. The GOP would be looking for somebody who not only could unite the fractured party but also appeal to independents and even Democrats gone sour on the failings of the Obama administration.
Gov. Christie had just won reelection in a landslide. Polls showed him leading the pack of Republican presidential hopefuls; he did well in a hypothetical race against Democratic front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton. And he’d recently taken over as chair of the Republican Governors Association – a prominent party position that includes major fund-raising.
But “Bridgegate” – evidence that his staff instigated a traffic jam by ordering lane closures around the George Washington Bridge out of spite against a Democratic mayor – brought that to a screeching halt. And since that story broke, the situation has worsened for Christie.
Some 20 people associated with his administration have been subpoenaed to testify about the scandal. And now Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer has charged that the Christie administration withheld millions of dollars in Superstorm Sandy recovery grants from her city because she refused to sign off on a politically connected commercial development.
"I was directly told the by the lieutenant governor – she made it very clear – that the … project needed to move forward or they wouldn't be able to help me," Mayor Zimmer told The Associated Press.
Christie officials were quick to deny the claim.
"It's very clear partisan politics are at play here as Democratic mayors with a political axe to grind come out of the woodwork and try to get their faces on television,” said Christie spokesman Colin Reed.
There’s no question that Democrats – including the majority in the New Jersey state legislature – are taking advantage of Christie’s political woes.
In Florida this weekend, where Christie is raising money for the GOP, US Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who chairs the Democratic National Committee, has been badgering Christie for what she said was a pattern of “intimidation and retaliation.”
“What we’ve seen with the bridge scandal is a look behind the curtain of exactly how Christie’s office operates behind the scenes,” she said at one of her press events. “That’s the model that Republican governors have elevated and want to emulate.”
This can all be written off as sharp-elbowed politics, but it may be having an effect on Christie’s future.
"If this continues, he clearly can’t perform the functions of the [Republican Governors Association] chair, which is to go in and put the spotlight on GOP gubernatorial candidates on the ballot in November," University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato told the Star-Ledger newspaper in Newark. "If he’s going to go into a state to help … but then he becomes the issue and generates negative headlines, then he can’t serve as RGA chair, it’s obvious."
“If you brought him in South Carolina today, what would we be talking about?” Mr. Graham asked. “We’d be talking about him.”
In New Jersey, polls show Christie weathering the storm – so far.
His job approval rating has dropped from a high of 68 percent in July, but most voters (55 percent) still think he’s doing a good job as governor, according to a Quinnipiac University poll this past week. By 54-40 percent, they’re more likely to see Christie as “leader” than a “bully.” But that was before this weekend’s assertion by the mayor of Hoboken, and who know what else Democrats and the media might unearth as the scandal evolves?
"It's still two years before Iowa or New Hampshire go to the polls," Joe Marbach, provost and professor of political science at La Salle University, told the New York Daily News. "The attention span of the public has been greatly diminished with the latest scandal of the week. That's to the governor's advantage, provided there are not a series of questions coming next."