Water under the bridge
© Greg Nash

Republicans are confident that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s “Bridgegate” problems are behind him, and they say he’s weathered a storm that would make him an even more formidable 2016 GOP presidential candidate.

An investigation by New Jersey lawmakers released on Monday didn’t turn up any evidence directly linking the GOP governor to a politically motivated scheme to close traffic lanes on the George Washington Bridge last year. 

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“If a partisan panel of Democrats couldn’t find any cause for concern, then it’s clear this is a nonissue,” said Ryan Williams, a Republican strategist who worked on Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign. “He can hang his hat on these panel findings, and it will be a heat shield for him if anyone hits on it during the campaign.”

In addition, GOP observers say Democrats’ eagerness to sink Christie has helped him burnish a reputation among conservatives as the candidate whom liberals fear most against Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonFrustration boils over with Senate's 'legislative graveyard' Poll: Nearly half of Clinton's former supporters back Biden Harris readies a Phase 2 as she seeks to rejuvenate campaign MORE.

“I have never seen a candidate that the Democrats wanted to sweep under the rug faster than Christie,” said Republican strategist Ford O’Connell. “Now he can say, ‘I’m the one Democrats are trying to trash. Why do you think they’re so afraid of me?’ ” 

An investigation by the U.S. attorney’s office is still pending, but details that have leaked from that report also indicate that investigators have failed to turn up a smoking gun linking Christie to the lane closures that took down many of his closest aides earlier this year.

While the scandal has drawn intense media scrutiny, Monmouth University pollster Patrick Murray said the issue barely registers among voters outside of New Jersey. He said that, unless another bombshell drops, Democrats will have little success attacking Christie for the scandal in a national campaign.

“It’s too local,” the New Jersey pollster said. “All of the national polling right now shows that the bridge is nothing more than a minor blip for him right now.”

Still, at one point in 2013, Christie was among the most popular political figures in the country. Boosted by his response to Hurricane Sandy, an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released in June of that year showed Christie with a 41 percent favorability rating, compared to just 12 percent unfavorable.

But when the bridge scandal broke, support for Christie cratered.

When the same question was asked in March 2014, he came in at only a 17 percent favorable and 32 percent unfavorable, a 44-percentage-point swing. Since then, he’s slowly worked his way back up, breaking even in the most recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll from November, at 29 percent.

Christie has successfully rehabilitated his image in conservative circles through the work he did as head of the Republican Governors Association. During the 2014 campaign cycle, he funneled millions of dollars to candidates and traveled the country helping the party deliver victories in competitive gubernatorial contests in swing states like Florida and Ohio.

Those chits he collected, and the work he did convincing party leaders behind closed doors that he did nothing wrong, will help neutralize Bridgegate as an issue for him in the early stages of the presidential cycle, strategists say. In addition, other Republican contenders run a risk in attacking him on the issue in the primaries.

“You don’t want to be a Republican in a primary using Democratic attacks,” Williams said, noting that Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) tried that in 2012, when he called Romney a “vulture capitalist” and it backfired.

That doesn’t mean the political risks of the scandal are completely gone, though.  

The U.S. attorney’s office could still drop charges on some of Christie’s top aides, which could come at an inopportune time in early 2015, when Christie and other potential candidates are expected to make their national ambitions known. If Christie secures the Republican nomination, he could expect Democrats to press forward full throttle in a quest to uncover more dirt.

“Democrats are going to dig to China to turn up everything they can on this,” O’Connell said.

One New Jersey Democratic strategist told The Hill that Democrats will seek to turn the scandal into an issue that resonates nationally with voters.

The Garden State strategist said Christie has branded himself as a decisive leader who displays meticulous control over those who report to him, and the bridge allegations destroy that image. 

“The Christie brand always been about strong and decisive leadership,” the Democrat said. “They’ve worked so hard to cultivate this image that it’s about accountability and strong leadership at the top, but however this plays out, his failure to maintain control of his staff runs contrary to the carefully crafted image they’ve been trying to build on for years.”

Republicans dismiss the potency of that argument.

“If they’re just saying he couldn’t control his staff, that’s a far less sexy story,” O’Connell said.

But Christie will also have to rebut attacks from Democrats that scandal cements an existing narrative about him: that he’s a bare-knuckles politician with a reputation for bullying his political opponents.

“One of his biggest challenges will be to not allow this ‘bullying’ meme to catch hold,” O’Connell said. “Politics is about perception, not reality, so he can’t let this stick.”

Of course, all of this is moot if another bombshell drops.

Murray said there’s the possibility that the U.S. attorney’s office might uncover misdeeds that are unrelated to the bridge closure. Some have speculated that, based on subpoenas the office has sought, it has expanded its investigation to include high-level appointments Christie has made, and whether those appointees misallocated resources to help Christie build a reputation as a sound fiscal conservative.

“But assuming another shoe doesn’t fall … if this is all Democrats can come up with, then I like his chances,” O’Connell said.