Christie Scandal Opens Door to Far Right GOP Hopefuls

Can the New Jersey governor get his mojo back after bridge-gate?

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The Fiscal Times
January 10, 2014

In the space of a single day, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie went from prospective front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016 to damaged goods. His rivals just got a big boost. 

Chris  Christie’s  two-hour exercise in accepting responsibility for the George Washington Bridge scandal while carefully blaming his staff may have been enough to prevent the New Jersey governor from falling off the list of potential Republican presidential candidates in 2016.

Related: The One Question Chris Christie Couldn’t Answer 

But it’s certainly destroyed his  front-runner status, which can only be good news for the handful of other Republican governors and members of Congress who are thought to be considering a bid for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. 

The news wasn’t just bad for Christie, though. It was also bad for establishment Republicans who saw in Christie their best chance of nominating a center-right pragmatist  not tied to the far right Tea Party movement that has dominated the party for the past two election cycles. 

Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University in New Jersey, said that without Christie in the presidential sweepstakes, "It would basically leave the Republican field represented by fairly conservative Republicans." 

Related: Chris Christie: A Bridge Too Far? 

"If he were to drop out, it would eliminate the one person who could probably pull the party to the center," Baker said. "What Christie promised to Wall Street and business was someone who could be more moderate and who could moderate the party." 

Asked if he thought Christie will survive the scandal and hang on to his governorship, Baker said: "Yeah, I think he probably will survive. But he will be damaged goods, nonetheless."

Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, agreed that Christie was likely to remain a candidate. 

“I doubt Christie will be forced out, unless evidence later emerges that he didn't tell the truth at his press conference,” he wrote in an email.  “But if somehow that happened, then someone would attempt to take his market share--more establishment and business Republicans who are looking for a winner, which by definition means a candidate who can "talk Blue" and win some Blue (Democratic) or Purple (competitive) states.”

Related: 5 Who Could Lead the Republican Party in 2013 

The most obvious beneficiaries of Christie’s fall from grace are, in no particular order, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, and Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, who was the 2012 Republican vice presidential nominee. 

Paul, Rubio, and Ryan have all recently launched public efforts to moderate their images by addressing poverty and inequality. Even Cruz, the conservative firebrand, has made comments about learning lessons from his combative first year in the Senate. 

However, part of Christie’s appeal has always been his status as a Washington outsider, and to the extent the bridge scandal has damaged him, it may have helped a potential candidate who has largely stayed out of the spotlight until his recent book tour:  Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker. 

A tax-cutting, right-to-work, union-busting conservative, Walker has all the right wing credibility of Rubio, Paul, Cruz, and Ryan, but none of the taint that comes with being a member of Congress – a body with approval ratings that are, famously,  somewhere around the same level as the Ebola virus.

Related: How Scott Walker Would Reform the GOP 

“Scott Walker will presumably have won three times by 2016 in the Blue state of Wisconsin, and he's already a hero to business conservatives,” wrote Sabato.  

But Marco Rubio shouldn’t be ruled out, he said, noting that he “has taken up immigration and now poverty, with a more conservative slant in the Jack Kemp mold. I wouldn't classify him as ‘hard right’ and he represents a very Purple state.” 

Sabato also noted the possible dark horse candidacy of former Florida governor Jeb Bush and New Mexico governor Susana Martinez, though he said she is “more probably on the short list for VP.” 

Rutgers’ Baker is skeptical that anyone else could replace Christie as a moderate to conservative pragmatist who could build bridges to the Democrats. One possibility would be Ohio Gov. John Kasich who touches some of the right chords for conservatives and Christian groups yet has expanded Medicaid in his state and talks a lot about helping the poor. 

House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) missed Christie’s press conference, but said he believes the governor will remain a serious contender for the Republican 2016 presidential nomination, despite the mushrooming traffic jam scandal. 

“I think so,” Boehner told reporters at the Capitol. “I think so.” 

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    Washington Editor and D.C. Bureau Chief Eric Pianin is a veteran journalist who has covered the federal government, congressional budget and tax issues, and national politics. He spent over 25 years at The Washington Post.