Christie Bloodied by Bridge-gate, Sandy Response

Image: Christie Bloodied by Bridge-gate, Sandy Response Gov. Chris Christie answers a question during a town hall meeting Tuesday in Toms River, N.J.

Tuesday, 04 Mar 2014 10:37 PM

By Jennifer G. Hickey

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New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has been badly bloodied by the Bridge-gate scandal and criticism over Superstorm Sandy recovery efforts, pollsters and political observers told Newsmax, but he still maintains the support of half the state's voters.

Some supporters say they hope Christie will emerge stronger from the ordeal.

As Christie gave his annual budget address last week, his job approval rating measured just 50 percent in a Monmouth University-Asbury Park Press poll.

A year earlier, Christie headed into his 2013 budget address with a 74 percent job approval rating in a Quinnipiac University poll amid high praise for his performance in the wake of Sandy, which devastated large sections of the Jersey shore.

Patrick Murray, director of Monmouth University's polling institute, told Newsmax it is obvious that "Bridge-gate has been a major driver of the decline in his approval ratings, and the reason is that it struck right at the core of what voters thought they knew about him."

In addition to Bridge-gate, in which the closing of commuter lanes on the approach to the George Washington Bridge caused a mammoth traffic nightmare for days, Christie has been weakened by his handling of Sandy recovery efforts, state political observers said.

"I think internally in New Jersey there has been some fracturing of the base, particularly at the shore," Matt Rooney of the conservative Save Jersey blog told Newsmax.

"You have some people who trusted him when he was saying how good the government response was and what a great relationship he had with the federal government. A year later and they are still out of their homes and they have yet to see any aid," Rooney said.

The loss of trust, Rooney argues, is damaging because voters are now more skeptical of Christie on some other important policy issues, such as gun control.

State Democrats have introduced a measure to reduce from 15 rounds to 10 rounds the ammunition capacity of gun magazines. Christie has not settled on whether he would sign or veto the legislation if it passed. Rooney said that reinforces doubts among some constituents that politics rather than principle is driving the governor's decisions.

"He was always brutally honest, and his image was of a politician who believed what he said. But a lot of people are now questioning whether he really has that orientation," Rooney added.

Political observers do not agree on whether Christie has suffered lasting wounds. Former Bogota, N.J., Mayor Steve Lonegan said that in recent weeks Republicans, both moderate and conservative, have started to rally in support of Christie.

"They realize they're watching a politically orchestrated attack on someone who is perceived as being a frontrunner" for the Republican presidential nomination, Lonegan said.

"When you speak with people, even those in the tea party, they were skeptical a few weeks ago about Christie. Now they see [Bridge-gate] as a witch hunt and a political vendetta carried out by the liberal media and the Democratic Party," Lonegan told Newsmax.

"The court of public opinion is swaying back the other way, and Christie could actually emerge stronger," said Lonegan, who is running to succeed retiring Republican Jon Runyan in New Jersey's Third Congressional District.

Lonegan said those he meets along the campaign trail do not blame Christie for delayed Sandy aid, but instead view the Federal Emergency Management Agency as the primary obstacle to recovery funds.

Nevertheless, one New Jersey conservative activist told Newsmax that Christie's support from conservatives continues to slide because of the belief among many that Christie cannot be trusted.

The source, who requested anonymity, said conservatives — who were not comfortable with Christie in the first place — are angry over the politicization of Sandy money and think 2016 politics is driving many of the contracts handed out to allies.

Allegations that the Christie administration threatened to withhold Sandy aid unless an unrelated development project was approved in Hoboken have exacerbated Christie's political predicament.

According to the Monmouth survey, almost 80 percent of New Jersey voters are aware of the allegations and 49 percent said they believe the claims of Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer, compared to 40 percent who doubt her.

In general, 60 percent of respondents said it was either very likely or somewhat likely that the Christie administration had politicized the distribution of Superstorm Sandy aid. Only 40 percent approve of the handling of the state's recovery efforts, which is a sharp decline from the overwhelmingly positive feelings expressed a year earlier.

Brigid Callahan Harrison, a professor of political science and law at Montclair State University, said the dual scandals are "significantly hurting" Christie nationally.

"As a result of Bridge-gate, he no longer can claim to be bipartisan and above politics," she told Newsmax.

And because of questions about Sandy appropriations, "he cannot highlight Sandy as a major accomplishment," Callahan Harrison said. "Those were two of the biggest positives he brought to the table. And it will be difficult given his poll numbers to claim he has appeal within blue states."

Maurice Carroll, director of Quinnipiac University's Polling Institute, said several Quinnipiac polls indicate the bloom may have fallen off Christie's flowering presidential hopes.

"While he was a clear and emerging frontrunner in January, he is now just another one of the candidates in a very crowded field," Carroll told Newsmax.

The response within the Republican Party on a national level has been mixed.

Former Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli called on Christie to resign as leader of the Republican Governors Association.

"I think just from the perspective of setting aside this as an issue in other races, it makes sense for him to step aside in that role," Cuccinelli said on CNN's "Crossfire."

"He does not serve the goals of that organization by staying as chairman. And that doesn't mean any of the charges, political or otherwise, are substantive or not. It doesn't matter. Perception is reality."

Some leaders have reacted to the wall-to-wall coverage of Bridge-gate by the national media by publicly demonstrating their support. For example, former GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal both announced they would make appearances with Christie.

Ann Herberger, a prominent GOP fundraiser, said the bridge scandal is causing some donors to hold onto their money.

"There are influential donors who are giving him a second and third look. Where they would have been 'This is the guy' two months ago, I think a lot of people are giving him a second look and keeping their powder dry," Herberger told The Associated Press.

However, Christie has shown in recent weeks that he retains his prowess as a fundraiser for the party, raising $18 million for the RGA since he took over the group's leadership.

The damage suffered by Christie on policy issues, particularly on Superstorm Sandy recovery efforts, has prompted the governor to adopt a strategic shift in his defense, re-engaging with the public as an effort to repair his reputation and reclaim the policy agenda.

The governor held a town hall meeting on Feb. 20 that focused solely on Sandy aid and a Feb. 27 town hall meeting that focused on fiscal issues.

In both cases, he did not take questions from the press, a tactic he also employed when attending the RGA meeting in Washington.

Christie also has adopted a new strategy by criticizing the role of FEMA in Sandy recovery efforts.

"FEMA is the new F word," Christie told the crowd at one town hall meeting.

But Callahan Harrison, the Montclair State professor, says Christie's image as an anti-establishment politician has been harmed.

"While you had leaders in municipalities dissatisfied with the pace of Sandy recovery aid, it was not until the Hoboken story broke that the public's trust in Christie was broken.

"Since then, we have seen a number of instances of the misuse and politicization of funds. That hurts his image as someone who was above politics, as someone who was not just another establishment politician," she said.

Murray, the Monmouth pollster, told Newsmax:

"Most of those who were critical of the response to Hurricane Sandy were those directly affected by it, but now their voices are being heard by the rest of the public, and they are now asking questions, too.

"Bridge-gate has opened up the whole spectrum, and now everything he does is being viewed through a more critical eye. No doubt the questions about Sandy aid are potentially more dangerous because he was once seen as the hero of the storm."

Carroll, the Quinnipiac pollster, said that future Bridge-gate revelations from the ongoing investigation could further damage Christie, but that the governor is a long way from being finished.

"I don't know if the media will continue to talk incessantly about it if nothing new emerges. But the investigating committee still has the ability to stoke the fires on the issue if it wants by releasing information," Carroll said. "We know he has been hurt. Is there damage? Yes. But does it finish him? Not by a long shot."

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