Christie jam opens lane for 2016 hopefuls

Greg Nash

The political scandal that threatens to jam Gov. Chris Christie’s (R-N.J.) road to the White House could help accelerate the path of his fellow potential presidential hopefuls.

Christie looked like the GOP front-runner two days ago, but that was before emails emerged showing top Christie aides and appointees were involved in closing lanes on the George Washington Bridge — apparently to cause traffic jams and get revenge on a Democratic mayor.

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Republicans quickly point out it’s too soon to handicap how the scandal will or won’t affect Christie’s chances. 

Ana Navarro, a former adviser to Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) presidential bid, told The Hill that, while Christie “gave people a better feeling” with his Thursday press conference, major GOP donors and political players she had spoken to that day were now thinking differently about the governor.

“I think there are three constituencies that benefit from Christie’s problems: One is the Democrats, two are the Republicans who don’t like him and three are the potential Republican candidates who share his same space — Scott Walker, Jeb Bush, Paul Ryan," she said.

A former adviser to 2012 nominee Mitt Romney admitted the major GOP donors were likely re-evaluating their options after the new developments emerged.

“I have found that donors are very flighty — they’re high on you one day, low on you the next day, high on you the next day,” the aide said.

In the subsequent weeks and months, observers say several potential candidates could take advantage of Christie’s problems.

Who best stands to profit, if they play their cards right? Here’s a quick look at how some of Christie’s top likely rivals could each be affected. 

Gov. Scott Walker (R-Wis.)

The Wisconsin governor is seen by many as Christie’s greatest rival for the establishment mantle, so if Christie falls, it's a real opportunity for Walker.

Like Christie, Walker is a GOP governor who has won election in a blue state. If the bridge scandal demolishes Christie’s broad base, Walker might steal the electability argument away from Christie.

Monmouth University pollster Patrick Murray said these incidents could diminish Christie’s support among the crucial blocs — Hispanics, women, independents and Democrats — that made him such a rarity within the GOP, and give Walker newfound opportunities. 

“Right now the bully image that he has, has worked to his favor, but if its not just him personally being a bully but rather creating an administration that’s going to run roughshod over innocent people for political retribution, then he’ll have a problem with those [important blocs],” said Murray. 

Walker, who’s reigned in unions and enacted substantial pension reform, might ultimately be more palatable to both conservatives and establishment types than Christie ever was — and the bridge scandal might begin to uncover that.

Walker survived a recall election last year but will face a much closer fight in this year's reelection bid. He's likely to need help from the Republican Governors Association led by Christie.

If he wins, he could emerge as a real player for the 2016 nod.

Former Gov. Jeb Bush (R-Fla.)

The former Florida governor shares many of the same advantages as Christie: executive experience, gubernatorial accomplishments and expansive appeal to swing voters and Hispanics. 

Bush also some baggage: His brother’s controversial presidency has left many wary of another Bush in the White House, and his support for immigration reform and education reform has riled many in the conservative wing. 

But up against a Christie marred by the bridge scandal, observers say, Bush’s blemishes might diminish, and his strengths might grow. The former governor’s outspoken advocacy for immigration and education reform could take on a new luster against Christie’s record, if the New Jersey governor faces roadblocks in his second-term agenda following the bridge scandal. 

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas)

The freshman senator solidified his status as darling of the Tea Party with the 21-hour speech he gave last year in support of defunding ObamaCare that precipitated the government shutdown. 

The polarizing Texan hasn’t, for that reason, ever appeared to challenge Christie for the same type of voters. If Cruz runs, his fight in the primary focuses on an atmosphere of voters that only marginally overlaps with Christie’s base of support with more centrist voters. 

In the coming months — and on an eventual primary campaign trail and debate stages just feet away from Christie — the bridge scandal personified in Christie could give Cruz an easy symbol of the government overreach he’s made a career of battling and yet another example of why the wisdom of the establishment isn’t always so wise.  

That allows Cruz to harness voters who might like Christie personally but remain skeptical of his brash style as opposed to the Texas senator’s conservative intellectual approach. In that way, the lane closures could offer Cruz the clearest example yet of why government cronyism is harmful, and he could frame himself as the best alternative to an out-of-control administration that can't help but breed scandal — much as he's done in attacking the Obama administration. 

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.)

A frequent Christie antagonist, Paul was the only candidate to take a direct shot at Christie over the controversy — and he did so with the zest that’s flavored so many of their previous interactions.

“I know how angry I am when I’m in traffic,” Paul told reporters in the Capitol Thursday. “I’m always wondering who did this to me.” 

The bridge scandal is beneficial for Paul because it neutralizes some of Christie’s strengths: his reputation as a competent executive and outsider who puts problem-solving ahead of politics.

And what’s congressional gridlock — a faceless harm without a clear victim — up against gridlock on the highway, something voters everywhere experience every day? What’s a plagiarism scandal up against one with at least four staff casualties and multiple investigations?

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) 

Rubio and Ryan have both kept fairly low profiles as potential presidential contenders, but they’ve each frustrated the conservative base with tendencies toward pragmatic policymaking and away from rhetorical bomb-throwing. In fact, Rubio declined to pile on Christie as the scandal unfolded, saying the story should be allowed to play out. 

However, in recent weeks, they’ve both sought to refocus on a national issue that might draw bipartisan attention in the coming years: poverty. And as they do, Christie’s distractions at home give his potential opponents in Washington an opportunity to build their profiles on an issue that could provide a winning contrast to a perception of the governor that the bridge scandal feeds.

While Christie must work to combat accusations that he’s a "bully" and reverse the belief he fosters an atmosphere of “fear and intimidation,” as one New Jersey Democrat put it, Ryan and Rubio can focus on offering practical solutions to an emotional issue that affects Americans everywhere.

Stepping up to tackle poverty is a compassionate move, one that evokes respect and admiration in voters — two things that could suddenly be in short supply for Christie.