Christie’s biggest battle isn’t scandal

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For Gov. Chris Christie, it’s his state’s budget — not “Bridgegate” — that could derail his 2016 ambitions.

The New Jersey Republican unveiled a plan on Tuesday to combat the state’s $807 million budget shortfall, as he’s required to do by state law. He says it wouldn’t raise taxes and would reduce pension payments for public workers.

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But now the Christie administration must begin wrangling with a Democratic-controlled Legislature to pass the plan and overhaul the state’s finances. It’s his first major test since the fallout after senior officials in his administration were implicated in the closure of lanes on the George Washington Bridge as an apparent act of political payback. 

“This is a make-or-break moment for Chris Christie. As the Bridgegate scandal swirls around him, the best thing he can do is get Jersey’s fiscal house in order,” Republican strategist Ford O’Connell said. “If he can’t, that’s where they’ll tar and feather him if he gets up onstage in a GOP primary.”

Christie continued to blame former New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine, a Democrat he defeated in 2009, for his budget woes during the unveiling of his proposal on Tuesday.

“We will not make the payment that apply to the sins of the past,” Christie said at a press conference on Tuesday in Trenton. “We’re still digging out of problems two decades in the making.”

And he’s accused public pension plans, as well as the Affordable Care Act, of hindering New Jersey’s economic growth.

Most governors who are eyeing a run for president, like Christie, tout their executive experience and economic record as important credentials for running the federal executive branch, contrasting their administrations with gridlock in Congress. 

He won’t be alone: Many establishment Republican donors want former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush to run, and a handful of other GOP governors are mulling campaigns. 

But Christie will especially have to walk a political tightrope of working across the aisle in a blue state while not losing the conservative base he’ll need should he run for president. 

Florida Republican lobbyist Slater Bayliss, who co-chairs the conservative
MavPAC Florida with Jeb Bush Jr., said Christie’s budget negotiations will likely play more of a role in a Republican primary than the lane closure scandal.

“Bridgegate was politically challenging because it questioned the ethical makeup of his administration,” Slater said. “He has likely emerged from that unscathed. From a budget perspective — that’s something primary voters will focus on more."

Christie has looked to paint himself a cost-cutting governor who isn’t afraid to take on unions, but that could be in jeopardy with the new budget

“He will lose that reputation if he agrees to raise taxes,” said Patrick Murray, director of Monmouth University’s Polling Institute in New Jersey.

Murray said that since the scandal, Christie has lost his status as the GOP presidential front-runner, competing now with Bush and Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.), as well as Texas Gov. Rick Perry.

“Now he has to pick up more of the conservative vote than he would’ve needed otherwise,” Murray said. “So his big question is what’s going to be most beneficial to win the conservative vote? That has to be holding the line on taxes.”

Major credit-rating agencies have also downgraded New Jersey’s score six times since Christie became governor, which could be used as a political attack against him.

“The ads speak for themselves,” said GOP consultant Chip Saltsman, a former adviser to 2008 presidential candidate Mike Huckabee. “But it’s not just the attack ads. How you manage a state is pretty good foreshadowing of how you run a country. If the state hasn’t done better, then what’s that mean for the country? This is his first big political test post-Bridgegate.”