For the first time in two decades, Texas is electing a new governor, making the contest — featuring liberal heroine Wendy Davis — one of the marquee races of this election year.
That alone would be good reason for New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, head of the GOP’s gubernatorial campaign arm, to drop by the Lone Star State. There’s also this: Texas is a deeply red bastion bursting with fat cats slinging fat wallets who could serve Christie well in a prospective 2016 bid for president.
Indeed, Christie’s chairmanship of the Republican Governors Association, with its network-building, chit-gathering capacity, was one of the reasons some installed him as an early favorite for the GOP nomination, following his smashing re-election victory in November.
But that, of course, was before the George Washington Bridge scandal drove Christie’s White House ambitions into a ditch.
The governor was in Texas on Thursday, raising money for the RGA, and the nature of his visit demonstrated everything that need be said about the current state of his political disunion. The events in Dallas and Fort Worth were held behind closed doors, with no news coverage allowed. The state’s presumptive GOP gubernatorial nominee, Attorney General Greg Abbott, chose to be elsewhere during Christie’s visit, as did outgoing Republican Gov. Rick Perry.
The Texas jaunt follows a Christie trip last month to Florida, where Republican Gov. Rick Scott, locked in a tough re-election fight, sneaked into a similar fundraiser through a back entrance rather than have his picture taken alongside New Jersey’s scandal-stricken governor. Out of sight, as it were, if not out of mind.
The facts surrounding the bridge scandal are in dispute and subject to multiple investigations. It is clear that Christie’s aides manufactured several epic traffic jams leading to the bridge after the Democratic mayor of nearby Fort Lee refused to endorse the governor for a second term. Christie has adamantly insisted he had nothing whatever to do with the perceived payback and said he fired two aides aware of the plan as soon as he learned of their actions.
Steadily, however, new revelations have kept the scandal very much alive, feeding the cravings of a ravenous New York-New Jersey media. (Would there be half as much coverage if Christie were governor of, say, Nebraska?)
The latest drip-drip came Jan. 31 when an attorney for David Wildstein, Christie’s former schoolmate and appointee to the bridge-tending Port Authority, said “evidence exists” to contradict Christie’s assertions of innocence. It was not clear what that evidence is; pressing for legal immunity and payment of his legal bills, Wildstein has every incentive to dramatize his claims.
But true or not, the cover-up allegations are hardly helping Christie as he eyes a 2016 presidential run. “Even if it turns out not to be true,” said New Jersey pollster Patrick Murray, “there are significant consequences just to having those charges sitting out there.”
Such as having the word “bridge” in the first paragraph of every account of every trip Christie makes out of state.
Or making Christie a public persona non grata within his own party at the very moment he’s trying to raise his national profile and lay the foundations for a 2016 run.
Surely this is not the way Christie and his strategists envisioned his presidential campaign rollout, sneaking in and out of events to avoid the probing of reporters or photographing of fellow Republicans in unhappily close proximity. Even the Texas Republican Party was kept out of the loop about Christie’s comings and goings Thursday.
“We had no idea he was coming into the state,” said state GOP Chairman Steve Munisteri. “They made no effort to contact us, no effort to reach out to grass-roots leaders, no effort to reach out to party leaders.
“To me he doesn’t seem to have any desire to build bridges with the Texas party,” Munisteri added. “Of course, he may want to be staying away from bridges right now.”
It was wildly premature to install Christie as the GOP front-runner, and it is just as premature now to write off his presidential chances.
But a White House campaign cannot be run like a stealth military operation. At some point, to seriously vie for his party’s nomination, Christie will have to step out from behind those closed doors, face the scrutiny of reporters and show that members of his own party want more than just the money he can raise for them in private.
Presumably he’ll cross that bridge when he comes to it.