Gov. Christie’s political storm expands

The political storm around Chris Christie intensified Monday as new emails suggested the New Jersey governor cut ties with a second Democratic mayor who refused to endorse his reelection last year.

With many unanswered questions remaining over the involvement of aides to the Republican in the controversial closing of lanes on the George Washington Bridge in September, New Jersey Democrats in the Legislature have formed a special committee to investigate Christie.

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And now, the pile-on isn’t limited to Christie’s role in the ensuing traffic jam as political retribution. Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) announced on Monday federal officials are investigating how Christie may have spent $25 million in Hurricane Sandy relief funds. The Housing and Urban Development inspector general is looking into whether Christie used the funds for a tourism campaign on the Jersey Shore, which may have helped him during his reelection fight.

With his political future hanging in the balance, Christie is now looking to minimize the damage by going about business as usual in his roles both as governor and chairman of the Republican Governors Association.

He will deliver his annual State of the State address on Tuesday, and his inauguration is next week. He’s also headlining fundraisers for the party’s failed Senate candidate, Steve Lonegan, and Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) this week.

Christie aides are privately echoing the choruses of many prominent Republicans over the weekend: that the governor can weather the storm and emerge again as a leader of the GOP pack in time for the 2016 presidential elections. But the steady drip of news surrounding the bridge controversy and other testy exchanges that bolster the “bully” image the governor’s trying to shed is exactly what political observers say Christie doesn’t need.

And now that he’s embroiled in scandal, the incumbent could be facing an intractable Democratic-led state Legislature, jeopardizing his ability to get much done in New Jersey — just what those close to Christie say he needs to rebuild his credentials and regain his leadership position in the party.

“In order to be considered for a national ‘something else,’ you have to show you’re good at the job you’re doing,” a top Christie adviser told The Hill.

The adviser said Christie is focusing on his State of the State and inaugural addresses, as well as a budget address he has coming up, and will work on passing some of the legislative priorities he mentioned on the campaign trail, such as education reform and reigning in state spending. But the governor might not have the same friendly relationship with the Legislature he once enjoyed.

“Whether or not some of the Democrats will be working with him as well as they did in his first term, we’ll find that out,” the Christie aide said. “That’s up to them, I guess.”

Other sources say major GOP donors were pleased with how Christie handled the scandal during his press conference last week. But the bridge incident, combined with previous and new reports about acts of political vengeance from the Christie administration, raises “serious concerns about the level of vetting that he has undergone over the past few years,” as one major Republican fundraiser told The Hill.

For GOP moneymen, the latest controversy is another line on a laundry list of potential land mines revealed during Mitt Romney’s vice presidential vetting process and outlined in 2012 political book Double Down.

“The Bridge incident could just be an unfortunate anomaly, but in combination with the revelations in ‘Double Down,’ it starts to make operatives and donors suspicious that where there’s smoke there may be fire,” the fundraiser said.

And new developments out Monday would seem to indicate Christie’s problems are wider than previously thought.

Emails show Christie’s former deputy chief of staff, Bridget Anne Kelly, whom he fired after emails last week indicated she conspired with a Port Authority official to create traffic in Fort Lee, N.J., reached out to Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop when the Democrat was elected last year.

Kelly offered to arrange meetings between Fulop and at least five of Christie’s top commissioners, but on the day that Fulop informed Christie aides that he wouldn’t endorse the governor for reelection, the meetings were canceled with no explanation. Fulop maintains the meetings were dropped for political reasons.

The Christie aide told The Hill the administration understands there might be more “disgruntled mayors” coming out against Christie, and that it realizes this has taken a toll on the governor’s national profile, but that his inner circle still believes there’s time to mend his brand before the presidential race starts in earnest.

“Of course, this much coverage on something that’s obviously not positive is going to have an impact. But we’re a long way away from whatever’s going to happen in the future,” the aide said.

Still, polling has shown Christie’s already taking a hit, at least in his home state, from the controversy.

A new Monmouth University/Asbury Park Press survey on Monday showed that while a majority of voters still approved of the job he’s doing as governor, for the first time since Hurricane Sandy his approval rating has dropped below 60 percent. The survey also showed an 11-point drop in job approval among independents, a bloc important to bolstering his electability argument.

Perhaps more troubling for Christie is the fact that only 44 percent of New Jerseyans have a favorable opinion of him personality, and more than a quarter each have an unfavorable opinion and don’t know how they feel about him — that’s down from 70 percent of New Jerseyans who viewed him favorably a year ago.

The scandal has also taken a toll on the public’s perception of him as presidential. Now 44 percent say he has the right temperament to be president, a significant slip from September, when 56 percent said he has the right personality for the White House.

Those numbers will likely continue to shift as the investigation wears on. State Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D) is leading the inquiry into the bridge scheme and said on Monday he expects the assembly to extend its authority to issue further subpoenas in the case.

Once that power is renewed, he said subpoenas will likely be issued to Kelly and Bill Stepien, the governor’s former campaign manager, who was also in communication with the Port Authority official who ordered the closing of the bridge lanes. Stepien was removed by Christie from prominent political posts last week.

Still, one GOP strategist, who focuses on female voters in particular, predicts this scandal won’t hurt Christie in the long run.

“A year from now, this isn’t something we’re going to be talking about. It’s something his opponents will be trying to dredge up,” said Katie Packer Gage, who served as a deputy campaign manager for Romney. “I think the Democrats are going to jump the shark here pretty soon if it looks like they’re launching this full-frontal assault on Chris Christie. All that’s going to say to Republicans is ‘Wow, this is the guy the Democrats are most afraid of ... We’d better get behind him.’ ”