The budding bridge scandal that has engulfed New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has jeopardized his appeal among the very same establishment Republicans who have been most enthusiastic about him running for president in 2016.
Much has been made of how Christie's political standing took a hit among the GOP's already-skeptical Tea Party wing after the public learned that top Christie aides had shut down traffic on the George Washington Bridge as political retribution against a Democratic mayor.
But, more importantly for Christie, he may also have damaged his standing among the influential bloc of pragmatic Republican insiders who were initially drawn to him because of his strong leadership style and aura of electability. These insiders include experienced party operatives and wealthy donors whose backing would be crucial to assembling a successful presidential campaign operation.
“Attracting operatives and major donors is about electability,” said one veteran of Republican presidential campaigns.
Christie generally got positive reviews for his initial handling of the scandal last week, when he used a marathon press conference to apologize profusely, break ties with two top aides and to deny knowing anything about the politically motivated lane closings. But even supportive Republicans caution that Christie could find himself in deeper political trouble if additional revelations of impropriety emerge from his gubernatorial administration or his earlier tenure as U.S. attorney.
State lawmakers and a federal prosecutor are investigating the lane closings and federal officials on Monday announced a separate probe into Christie's handling of federal Hurricane Sandy aid. If any of those probes produce new damaging revelations, GOP operatives and donors are sure to reevaluate their support for Christie, according to Republican insiders interviewed by the Washington Examiner.
The bridge scandal hit as Christie was preparing for a second term that could help launch his presidential bid and just as he was getting ready to travel nationally to help other Republicans as the newly minted chairman of the Republican Governors Association.
“As of now, it doesn’t have much of an impact on him,” said Fred Malek, the finance chairman of the governors association and a major GOP power player. “He’s emerged as a strong and forthright leader who handles adversity well.”
Christie on Saturday -- just two days after his press conference -- was already on the road helping to raise campaign cash for Florida Gov. Rick Scott and he plans to continue the fundraising tour in coming weeks. So far, Republican candidates aren't turning away Christie's help and the RGA events are providing Christie an opportunity to build nationwide support for a presidential bid.
“A lot of people have asked him to come, and I don’t expect that to change,” said one Republican with knowledge of Christie’s plans.
Christie leads many of the early Republican presidential polls following his historic re-election in Democratic New Jersey. But some conservative activists remain wary of the New Jersey governor because of policy compromises that he's struck with the state's Democratic legislature and because of his warm embrace of President Obama in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy -- just weeks before Obama faced Republican Mitt Romney at the polls.
Christie's already shaky standing among those Tea Party activists could erode further, Republicans argue, if conservatives see the use of lane closings to punish a political foe as the same kind of abuse of government power as the Internal Revenue Service's targeting of conservative groups.
With the crucial early presidential nominating contests a full two years away, however, Christie has plenty of time to recover, Republicans in two crucial primary battlegrounds say.
A Republican operative in South Carolina said voters there are focused on the 2014 midterm elections and haven't given much thought to 2016. Their opinion of Christie as a presidential candidate hasn't been adversely affected, the operative said, because most haven't formed one, and by the time the presidential primary season gets underway, the bridge scandal may have simply faded into the background.
In New Hampshire, where voters have a history of embracing blunt-speaking candidates, state GOP Chairman Jennifer Horn predicted Christie could profit from the experience.
“I think it could end up helping him,” she said. “He was forthright, and he took action — and the people of New Hampshire appreciate that.”