Christie slumps as Dems rev up attacks

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New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s (R) poll numbers are plummeting as the Democratic attack machine revs into overdrive, raising questions over the White House hopeful’s links to “Bridgegate.”

The Democratic National Committee has made Christie a top focus after paying scant attention to the popular GOP governor last year, when he cruised to an easy reelection. 

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But with a growing scandal awash in allegations of corruption and payback, Democrats now see a ripe chance to damage Christie’s 2016 prospects they didn’t have last year. Operatives believe now is the prime time to further damage his once-bright political future amid accusations the governor’s former aides closed lanes on the highly trafficked George Washington Bridge in September as political retribution toward Fort Lee, N.J.’s Democratic mayor. 

Early White House polls had shown Christie running neck-and-neck with Hillary Clinton, the prohibitive favorite to win the Democratic nomination in 2016. But a poll released Tuesday by Quinnipiac University showed Clinton now has an 8-point lead over Christie after she narrowly trailed the GOP governor in December. In the midst of the survey, conducted from Jan. 15 to 19, Democratic investigators in New Jersey’s state assembly delivered 20 subpoenas to Christie’s aides to dig up more information about the scandal. 

While Christie had hoped to rehabilitate his political hopes by resuming travel with his duties as chairman of the Republican Governors Association, Democrats won’t even let up on the trail. DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz tailed Christie on a fundraising trip to Florida this past weekend to highlight Bridgegate to the local media while he talked to donors in Fort Lauderdale, Orlando and West Palm Beach.

The DNC kept the offensive going Tuesday by releasing a video trumpeting Christie’s drop in the polls and public skepticism about whether he has told the whole story. 

“Christie’s carefully manicured image as a straight shooter who can work across the aisle has taken a hit from allegations of bullying, corruption, and cover-ups,” the DNC said in a press release accompanying the video.

New Jersey Democratic statehouse leaders announced Tuesday that the Senate and Assembly would merge their investigations of the lane closures. In addition, Christie faces an investigation from U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman, a Democratic appointee, and another potential probe by the Senate Commerce Committee, headed by Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.).

Even the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee joined the barrage by taking a rare swipe at a GOP governor who isn’t running for the Senate. The DSCC jabbed at former Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.), who is mulling a Senate bid in New Hampshire, for defending Christie.

Correct the Record, a Democratic political group that was formed to defend Hillary Clinton, helped get the bridge controversy rolling last month by launching a Web graphic raising questions about Christie’s involvement in the bridge scandal. It was covered by CNN and other media outlets.

MSNBC, the left-leaning political news network, helped the story maintain momentum in recent weeks by covering it to the point that Christie’s spokesman has attacked the cable channel as a “partisan network that has been openly hostile to Gov. Christie and almost gleeful in their efforts attacking him.”

Former New Jersey state Sen. Barbara Buono, who ran against Christie in the 2013 gubernatorial race, tried unsuccessfully to call attention to the lane closures during the campaign. She raised the issue at a debate in October but it gained little traction.

David Turner, who served as Buono’s communications director, said he does not think the story has blown up merely because the national party has made Christie more of a priority since national polls have shown him to be a serious threat to Clinton. He pointed to explosive emails reported on earlier this month that linked the traffic snarl in Fort Lee to a directive from Christie’s former deputy chief of staff, Bridget Anne Kelly.

“It was the email trail that we all saw several weeks ago,” Turner said. “Before it looked like it was just a screw-up and there was no way to show it was perhaps ordered.”

Turner acknowledged, however, that national Democrats made the Virginia gubernatorial race a higher priority than the New Jersey contest last year. With Christie’s popularity sky-high after winning praise for his leadership in the response to Hurricane Sandy, Democrats privately acknowledged early the race wasn’t winnable. 

The scandal has widened in recent days as Dawn Zimmer, the Democratic mayor of Hoboken and a former Christie ally, has claimed a member of the governor’s team told her that Sandy relief funds would depend on her support for a real estate project. She has met with investigators with the U.S. attorney’s office.

Christie tried to put the controversies behind him Tuesday by not mentioning the bridge scandal during his second inaugural address after spending recent days assuring senior GOP officials and donors that he has contained its political fallout.

Instead, the governor sought to draw a contrast between his governing style of working with Democrats to the partisan politics that have led to gridlock in Washington.

“We cannot fall victim to the attitude of Washington, D.C. The attitude that says I am always right and you are always wrong,” Christie told supporters who gathered in Trenton. “The attitude that puts political victories ahead of policy agreements. The belief that compromise is a dirty word.”

He attempted to dispel heated speculation about a possible run against Clinton in three years and direct attention back to his work on the state and local levels.

“We are at the dawn of new age of pride and growth in our state and its people. Let us move forward with the strength that comes from the belief that we have in each other. I believe in you New Jersey — and I always, always will,” he said.

Christie’s office did not respond to a request for comment about the DNC’s latest tactics. 

The Republican National Committee said Democrats should spend their time trying to find answers for investigations plaguing the Obama administration, such as congressional probes into the lack of adequate security for the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya; the Internal Revenue Service’s targeting of conservative groups; and lavish conferences held by the General Services Administration.

“Instead of attacking Governor Christie, who has exhibited leadership and accountability, Democrats might want spend their energy seeking answers to their scandals including the IRA, GSA, Benghazi,” said RNC spokesman Sean Spicer.

But for all the push by Democrats to advance the scandal, some acknowledge it may not still be enough — unless there are other shoes to drop — and that Christie still may not suffer lasting political damage. 

Michael Murphy, a New Jersey-based Democratic consultant, said Christie can probably recover if “the conclusion is he’s clean and didn’t know anything about the Hoboken Sandy money.”

 

But, Murphy added, “if anything leads closer to him, then it clearly weakens him.”