Tag Archives: Chris Christie

Why Voter Turnout Mattered in the Midterms

Image courtesy of Reuters

Image courtesy of Reuters

By R. Alan Clanton, Thursday Review editor

The Republican Party’s massive sweep earlier this month of U.S. House and U.S. Senate elections cut across nearly all the geographic boundaries and traditional regional lines. Republicans not only consolidated their edge in the normally red areas of the red states, but the GOP also made inroads almost everywhere we have been told were now safe havens for Democratic candidates—Maryland and West Virginia, to name just two striking examples.

Ahead of the midterms, there was much talk about the anti-incumbency mood around the country. This anti-Washington fever has been building, made worse by what many Americans see as a pointless combination of petty squabbling, name-calling, and simple gridlock. President Obama and Congress can rarely agree on anything.

But to the surprise of many analysts and journalists, the midterm outcomes were more startling and potentially game-changing than was predicted. The GOP, presumed to be on the path to a slow death by the forces of shifting demographics and self-immolation, rebounded—exceeding even the wildest expectations of its own pollsters and strategists. Those GOP incumbents thought to be the most at risk proved easy winners. Mitch McConnell’s comfortable, early victory in Kentucky served as political weather warning for the remainder of that long Tuesday night and sleepless (for some) Wednesday morning. It was Democrats, nearly everywhere, that were in trouble that night.

Hardest hit, or so it seemed, were those Congressional and state candidates who had so openly and brazenly fled from President Obama, seeking instead to soak up some of the political strength and aura of Hillary Clinton instead—presumed front-runner for the presidency in 2016. That night would prove to be one of the worst for the Clinton brand name ever, as more than a dozen House and Senate hopefuls lost to Republicans in races that should have been close, closer, and cinches for easy wins. Only in New Hampshire did the Clinton franchise help a half dozen state candidates—mostly women—to victory. Clinton may be able to shake-off the dust and debris, but by campaigning alongside so many losing candidates, she has inadvertently handed the GOP the marketing tools they need to show she is not inevitable. Worse, she may have clumsily invited other Democrats to openly challenge her in primaries and caucuses—something unthinkable only six weeks ago.

For Democrats, there was a problem. A loss that Tuesday in some of those states was probably inevitable—the result of predictable dips in the approval rating and popularity of the President. The sixth year of two-term chief executives is often their worst, and the midterms will reliably reflect that voter angst and frustration. But in this case, Democrats clearly expected some gains, and seemed genuinely unprepared for the vast red landslide that ensued on Election Day. Republicans may not be winning the popularity contest—at least according to the exit polls conducted across the country—but Democrats aren’t winning the hearts and minds of the voters either. Even the President’s dismal popularity, coupled with a relentless, mostly nationwide strategy by GOP candidates to run a lot of campaign ads linking Democrats to Obama, does not go far enough to explain the Democrat’s catastrophe in November.

Then there were those cases of independent candidates challenging Republicans—most notably in Kansas where Greg Orman mounted a decidedly outside-of-the-box campaign to oust longtime Senator Pat Roberts, a Republican with a deep polling deficit only months before the election. So eager were Democrats to dislodge Roberts, they forced their own duly-nominated party loyalist out and began campaigning full throttle for the independent Orman—this, even as Orman steadfastly refused to make any commitments about which party he would caucus with once in Washington. But even this gambit failed. Roberts won easily, and Orman gets to go back to his business interests in the Sunflower State.

Now, the shocker for many readers: Republicans managed to win, and win big, but they didn’t outspend Democrats nationally. In fact, most of the so-called “tight” races saw spending which was more-or-less equal between the major candidates and their big-spending backers. In Florida, for example, Charlie Crist and his legion of big-money donors spent about the same amount that was spent by Rick Scott and his GOP allies.

And other than some accusations about electronic vote count shenanigans in Colorado (more about that later), there were no complaints about stolen votes, hanging chads, mishandled computers, or hacked registrars’ offices. Even the contentious narrative about voter suppression didn’t come into play this year: Democrats lost so badly in some states that poor voter turnout, in the form of disinterest and even rejection, was clearly the catalyst for the party’s disaster at the polls. The party that had clearly won a major victory—thanks largely to smart, savvy voter participation—only two years ago, was now left powerless in the face of sea of political disengagement.

The worst turnout levels were in Indiana, Texas, Utah and New York. This is a paradox, since Democrats like to generally make a direct correlation between educational achievement and high voter participation. Why did New York end the day with the fourth lowest turnout? Indiana is a swing state, crucial to both Republicans and Democrats. Yet it came in dead last, with a miserly 28 percent turnout. Utah and Texas are decidedly red states.

Colorado had the fourth best turnout in the country, in part—some analysts believe—because it converted to an entirely mail-in ballot process, one of only two states in which the majority of ballots are mailed-in (Oregon is the other). Only Maine, Wisconsin and Alaska had better turnouts than Colorado and Oregon.

Back some months ago, in April to be specific, Thursday Review received a few strongly-worded emails from several of our liberal readers and followers regarding our article entitled “Turnout Trumps Spending.”

Here at TR we had expressed the unmitigated, immoderate view that voter turnout still carries a wallop, and that concerns about spending often unfairly receive the lion’s share of attention. One need look no further than the presidential elections of 2012 to see how this can play out: strategists for both the Obama and the Romney campaigns had each concluded—correctly—that the election would hinge upon turnout, especially in several key counties and metro areas in Ohio and Florida. Both parties spent record millions in those TV markets, but both parties exerted even more firepower on making sure people went to the polls. A mountain range-sized pile of cash is not enough if your people don’t show up to vote.

Turnout is traditionally higher in a year in which there are presidential candidates on the ballot. By contrast, turnout can dip to lower levels during those off-years in between the presidential cycles. Turnout in 2014 was very low, the lowest in fact in more than 70 years. For both the 20th and 21st centuries, this year’s 36.3 percent was the lowest since the record-breaker low-water-mark of 1942.

The New York Times, in an editorial a week after the 2014 midterms, saw it as a two-pronged problem. “Republicans ran a single-theme campaign of pure opposition to President Obama,” said the Times, “and Democrats were too afraid of the backlash to put forward plans to revive the economy or to point out significant achievements of the last six years.”

The Times view is a reasonable interpretation, perhaps, but it does not go far enough to explain the political vortex that occurred that Tuesday.

If voters were genuinely disgusted with both parties, as so much of the media seemed to suggest (based on pre-election polling and exit polling) why didn’t the GOP suffer a more serious setback itself? Libertarian, independent, and other third party candidates should have seen a significant spike in interest from voters shopping for alternatives to the two mainstream options. Voters in Florida could choose between several well-funded third party options, including Libertarian Adrian Wyllie, yet widespread disgust at the negative campaigns of Scott and Crist drove few voters toward these non-traditional options. Likewise, significant third party movements in North Carolina, Indiana and Virginia failed to become the decisive disruptors widely predicted in advance. And in the aforementioned Kansas, Orman’s independent candidacy not only failed to trigger the ouster of Roberts, but may have expedited the collapse of a rare opportunity for Democrats to deny the GOP its traditional lock on Kansas’s representation in Washington. Further, despite some pre-election talk that Libertarian Gaylon Kent would make a numerical difference in Colorado’s closely-watched U.S. Senate election, in the end Kent grabbed only about 2.6% of the vote—not enough to have altered the outcome.

Only in Vermont did a Libertarian candidate muster enough voter support to temporarily rock the system, where Dan Feliciano, running for governor under the Libertarian banner, denied both Democrat Peter Shumlin and Republican Scott Milne a clear majority (under Vermont law, the General Assembly must choose the next governor in January; since the Assembly is made up of a majority of Democrats, and because Shumlin’s final tally places him slightly ahead of Milne, Shumlin is expected to be declared the victor by the Assembly unless Milne concedes).

But what about the aforementioned Colorado, where—contrary to recent voter behavior—there was a unusual disconnect between the results for governor and the results for Colorado’s widely-watched U.S. Senate race? One of the GOP’s most famous victories came at the expense of incumbent U.S. Senator Mark Udall. Udall, who had run one of the most unabashedly liberal campaigns, lost to Republican challenger Cory Gardner. Udall had been an enthusiastic supporter of the Affordable Care Act, and his positions on issues ranging from the Hobby Lobby case to his opposition to the Keystone Pipeline put him at odds with many voters in Colorado—a state often called a “battleground” by CNN and Fox News for its sometimes pivotal importance in the Electoral College. In recent years Colorado was widely thought to be moving leftward, but Udall’s defeat at the hands of Gardner may indicate that the Centennial State is not as liberal as some had thought.

Gardner won by 48.3 percent to Udall’s 46.2 percent—close, but not necessarily the cliffhanger some thought the race might have become. Tuesday’s early, wide vote count leads by Gardner made it appear that he might win in a blowout, but late-arriving returns from Denver and Adams counties—Democratic strongholds—denied Gardner his landslide, but did not deprive him of a safe win. Besides, late-arriving vote tallies from urban areas often produce final results that seem to skew or alter the trajectory of early returns. Still, Gardner’s victory was in keeping with national patterns that night: often, as the Senate went (and that was generally red), so went key U.S. House, state legislature, and gubernatorial races. The GOP benefited from this “group coattails” effect.

But, conversely, Coloradans re-elected Governor John Hickenlooper. As in most states, the GOP had waged a robust challenge to Hickenlooper, linking him to Obamacare, questioning his position on gun control, and berating him for his decision to grant a reprieve to an infamous death row inmate, Nathan Duncan, who was convicted of killing four people in a Chuck E. Cheese restaurant. Despite this, Hickenlooper survived and defeated his Republican challenger Bob Beauprez, albeit only after a particularly long night of vote counting.

Though there was only scant reporting of the problem in the Colorado press, and even less discussion nationally, there were concerns throughout that long Tuesday over what appeared to be repeated attempts by someone—or some group—to hack into the state’s voting system. Election Day volunteers, student volunteers, poll watchers, employees and elections supervisors were aware of the cyber-attacks, but were also informed that the state’s computer security people were on top of the situation. Despite an effort to outflank the hackers, a decision was reached in the early afternoon to briefly shut-down the entire statewide system, then perform a basic reboot—with all vote numbers up to that point locked-in. At around 2:00 p.m., the shutdown/reboot took place. When technicians brought the system back online about 20 minutes later, a strange thing had happened: John Hickenlooper had suddenly and mysteriously gained approximately 25,000 votes. Though it would have been theoretically impossible for anyone to have cast or counted votes during that 20 minutes, somehow thousands of votes appeared in Hickenlooper’s column. There were questions about vote shenanigans, though no one really knew where to look for answers, or how to sort out what had just happened.  Colorado’s mail-in ballots were being counted by machines, and there was easy way to resolve the sudden anomaly.

The governor’s race remained a squeaker through the long night, but by the next morning—with Hickenlooper’s lead growing—those mysterious 25,000 votes mattered less and less to reporters. In the end, the governor would claim his re-election by about 52,000 votes statewide. It remains to be seen whether anyone in the Colorado GOP—or any independent watchdog group—intends to demand a closer look at what happened that afternoon and evening in Colorado.

The general view is that Coloradans split their allegiances in ways that did not reflect the national voting patterns—anomalous, perhaps, but not unheard of. The Greeley Tribune pointed out that a switch of only 30,000 votes statewide would have shifted the outcome of either of Colorado’s big races—Hickenlooper versus Beauprez, or Udall versus Gardner. Another theory, assuming that there was no meddling with the vote totals in the governor’s race, is that Hickenlooper—unlike many of his Democratic brethren in House and Senate races nationwide—used his perceived centrism to effectively distance himself from President Obama. For most Democrats the strategy did not work; in Hickenlopper’s case it appears to have succeeded.

Finally, there is the case of Alaska, where Democratic Senator Mark Begich conceded only as recently as Monday night, calling to congratulate Republican Dan Sullivan nearly two weeks after the polls had closed. Despite most media and election groups calling it a victory for Sullivan as early as last week, Begich stubbornly held onto the notion that recounts might turn the final count in his favor. The Alaska Board of Elections show that Sullivan defeated Begich by roughly 7700 votes—a razor close number in many states, but by the low population standards found in Alaska, a comfortable 2.8 percent victory.

Why did Begich wait so long to concede what most observers considered a done deal? Begich himself first won his U.S. Senate seat only after patient and painstaking recounts in 2008—an election in which he apparently trailed incumbent Ted Stevens until every stray vote was finally counted…nearly two weeks after the polls had closed. Back then, Begich won by mere 4000 votes.

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Only 733 Days Remaining

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By R. Alan Clanton, Thursday Review editor

With a scant 733 days remaining before the presidential elections of 2016, time is running short for the candidates. No, I am not trying to be funny or ironic—just stating a cold, hard fact.

2016 is what is known as an open year: no incumbents or past incumbents will be running, and unless Joe Biden makes good on his halfhearted attempt to generate talk of a candidacy, there will be no vice-presidents rising to the top of the party ticket. Dick Cheney’s too old, Al Gore’s out of the game, Dan Quayle won’t return our calls.

There are, of course, two household names in the room. Each name represents a long franchise, and each of those franchises can claim great success, but each also has baggage—lots of baggage.

Hillary Clinton is the presumed—and at the moment—the only front-runner for Democrats. She has been running for President more-or-less continually even longer than Mitt Romney, and her de facto candidacy includes deep roots—DNA which can be traced back more than a decade.

When asked outright at events and lectures and interviews, her obfuscations and evasions about her candidacy are, in fact, her way on confirming what we already know. She is running, flat out. Lessons learned from her bruising, bloody campaign in 2008, she may in fact use a similar playbook. Only this time there will be no mistakes. She intends to clear the room of all pretenders and challengers early—very early if possible. And this is why the talk has been so unnaturally limited when the subject of other Democrats comes up in polite company, or impolite company, for that matter.

The scuttlebutt is that there are still unhealed wounds and bad blood from 2008, when a bitter primary and caucus campaign pitted her against the upstart Barack Obama. That year, knives were traded for chainsaws; incendiary bombs exchanged for nukes. That the Democrats survived without a replay of 1968 Chicago remains a testament to how much the party truly wanted victory after eight years of George W. Bush.

So far this year, Clinton’s coy approach has worked well. A year of continuous scrutiny and round-the-clock talk of her as-yet unofficial candidacy has not fazed her. She has remained cool under a variety of pressures (try doing a talk show and a live auditorium appearance every day; then try three times a day, every day) and not a single Democrat—other than Biden—has stepped forward to express even a hint of interest in challenging her presumed candidacy. And there has been no reason for Clinton to rush—in fact, the longer she waits, the greater the interest in Hillary. To quote Willie Wonka, the suspense is terrible…I hope it will last.

One could say that things have gone swimmingly for Hillary Clinton. That is, until last Tuesday.

Though not torpedoed directly by Republican firepower, Clinton will nevertheless have to immediately initiate repairs and modifications. The GOP’s sweep of the map on Tuesday was not only swifter and wider than anyone expected, it came with breathtaking totality—most especially to the more than two dozen Senate and Gubernatorial candidates, sprinkled across the landscape, who sought refuge from the deep unpopularity of President Barack Obama by campaigning instead alongside Hillary Clinton. What seemed like a stroke of genius has now, on several levels, complicated life for Hillary and for Democratic strategists everywhere.

As we mentioned in our article the day after the elections, Obama’s low job approval ratings are not uncommon in the sixth year of a two-term presidency. Presidents Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush all faced this same scenario. Those low poll numbers can easily—and predictably—weigh down upon the midterm elections, often with serious effect.

But President Obama’s poll numbers also reflected a general feeling by many voters that the White House was particularly sluggish on handling the major issues faced by Americans this year: the Ukraine crisis, ISIS, a war between Israel and Hamas, the still-sluggish economy, a border crisis involving children and teenagers, the Veterans Administration, and even the Ebola Virus.

Enter the Clinton franchise. Bill and Hillary, always game for public appearances, speeches, and the talk show circuit, rode to the rescue of legions of Democrats facing tough battles with Republicans, most of whom had rebranded the election as a referendum on the President and his performance. The Clintons were everywhere, almost literally, standing next to candidates in places as diverse as Iowa, Kentucky, Virginia, Arkansas, Colorado, Maine. There was Hillary hugging Michelle Nunn in Georgia, or embracing Bruce Braley in Iowa. Bill did his part too, including appearing in numerous slickly produced television ads—like the ones produced on behalf of Charlie Crist in Florida.

With Hillary Clinton attempting to burnish the brand name as much as possible—building loyalties, currying favor, tallying the brownie points, energizing the base, and rallying the party faithful—it seemed like a logical and useful way to keep her non-candidacy alive and on track. But, like those pesky credit-default-swap things that once helped wreck an economy, no one expected the market to go down. In this case, Team Clinton could not have expected this much carnage across so much of the battlefield. Republicans won in a rout, grabbing governorships, stealing the U.S. Senate, and upping their advantage in the U.S. House to a level not seen since Harry Truman was President.

That Red Tide swept through every region and every state, and left few island outposts standing. There was a similar GOP landslide back in 1980, but that was when Republican candidates—at almost every level—had grabbed a hold of the substantial coattails of Ronald Reagan.

So this raises the obvious question: lacking an Obama coattails, did Democrats ally themselves smartly when they bought into the great Clinton Franchise in 2014?

Or, as some might fairly suggest, should the question be reversed? Was it smart of the Clintons to have spread their valuable name into so many doomed quarters?

On the night of the elections, Kentucky’s Rand Paul—himself a presumed GOP candidate for 2016—suggested that the referendum voters faced was not about Barack Obama (that, he said, was already established), but about the future of the Democratic Party, and by extension the near future of its presumed standard-bearer. Hillary had chosen to very publicly and lavishly attach her name and reputation to two dozen major campaigns, only to watch as most of those elections ended the night swimming in that tsunami-like Red Tide.

One of Thursday Review’s political strategy contacts, who asked not to be identified for the purposes of this article (and also the article we posted on Wednesday) suggested that it is not so much a case of the Clinton’s spreading their goodwill too freely as it is a case of devaluing the endorsements and the co-option. Worse, this source said, it will make Hillary Clinton look like a loser even before her campaign has begun.

“It not only devalues the power of her name,” he said, “it shows her to be a poor judge of political conditions in the field, and that might be something Republicans can translate to mean she would turn out to be an inconsistent, erratic, or poor manager.” Others have suggested that Clinton’s share-the-stage debacle might be more problematic within her own party, inviting—horrors—other Democrats to consider stepping into the fray. If blowback from the 2014 fiasco continues to haunt the Clinton brand name for a few months, you can bet that non-top-tier (translation, non-Clinton) Democrats—Andrew Cuomo, Elizabeth Warren, Deval Patrick, Brian Schweitzer—will begin to weight their options for 2016.

For potential Republican candidates, many of whom are already hankering for 2016, the midterms—coupled with the Clinton brand name fiasco—makes the road ahead that much more appealing. The top contenders within the GOP were also spending a lot of time on the campaign trail in support of the brethren, and experts suggest that one can easily gauge which ones are serious by measuring the amount of time spent campaigning in states like Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida. Though no Republican has officially declared their candidacy, it is widely assumed that the top tier consists of Chris Christie, Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, Paul Ryan, Ted Cruz, and Mike Huckabee. Also being discussed: Rick Santorum, Mike Pence, Sam Brownback, Tim Pawlenty, and Rick Perry.

But what about Jeb Bush? For many Republicans, the last name Bush still carries both weight and resonance. The possibility of a Clinton versus Bush rematch in 2016 has been discussed widely, including in these very website pages. Bush had been keeping his profile at a modest altitude for the last nine months or so, sticking to his business activities, promoting his book on immigration, and talking education. But a flurry of activity—mostly but others within the Bush clan—in recent weeks has again raised the possibility that he is seriously weighing a run for President. More importantly, if he was previously considering sitting on the sidelines out of a certainty that Hillary Clinton was inevitable in 2016, he may now be reconsidering the environment. In the view of some GOP strategists, all bets are off: not only are Democrats vulnerable over the next few years, but the leading Democrat—indeed the party’s presumed standard-bearer—just lost a major battlefield skirmish before war was even declared.

In the meantime, the press was busy today reporting that Washington was back to business as usual, with Republicans making high-profile pronouncements about finally breaking through the gridlock (by sending a record number of bills to the White House to be vetoed), and Democrats continuing to hold to the line that the elections were not a referendum on President Obama, nor Democrats, nor anything else for that matter.

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To Face the Press (Or Not)

Republican Governors Page

By R. Alan Clanton, Thursday Review editor

(Originally published Friday, February, 14, 2014) New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has had a rough seven or eight weeks in the spotlight, even with the remarkable positive spin from the most watched Super Bowl—and the most highly rated TV event—in history taking place right in his own home state.

The so-called Bridgegate scandal has diverted his energies and his time, and has driven out of the limelight save for that nearly two-hour press conference last month followed by his state of the state address to the New Jersey legislature a few days later.

Now he must face the music again, this time in his new and prominent role as chairman of the Republican Governors Association. His selection for that job last fall was widely regarded as the final step in what would be his inevitable entry into the 2016 presidential sweepstakes. Until the fracas over the lane closures on the George Washington Bridge, which connects New Jersey to New York City, Christie was generally viewed by political analysts as the GOP front-runner, and the man-to-beat among the other Republican hopefuls.

Christie’s poll numbers last fall showed him to be the favorite among GOP voters, easily besting his closest potential competitors—Jeb Bush, Paul Ryan, Bobby Jindal and Rand Paul.
But much water has passed under that bridge. And much has changed.

Once able to hold his own in theoretical match-ups against presumed Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton, Christie’s poll numbers have fallen—slowly at first, then more dramatically. Other than a brief appearance at the Super Bowl, during which boos could be heard (albeit from lots of people not from New Jersey), he has been forced to stay out of direct contact with reporters. His much-watched trip to Florida a few weeks back to help raise money on behalf of Florida Governor Rick Scott resulted in no appearances outside of the private dinners and receptions, and zero contact with reporters.

Even as subpoenas were issued by the special committee investigating the bridge scandal (and the matter of the Sandy Relief money), Christie has communicated with the media by way of written statements, emails or through spokespersons in his office. The normally gregarious, outgoing and plainspoken Christie has remained tucked away behind his office walls and the cover of tinted windows on black SUVs.

But beginning on February 24, that may have to change, and the governor may have to face direct and heavy incoming fire from reporters as he convenes the GOP governors in Washington, D.C.

In Washington, where the press corps makes up a significant share of the political population, any event in which a top-tier presidential contender makes an appearance will draw throngs of reporters and photographers. In this case, many of them will be drawn by the scent of blood in the water. In fact, had everything been going swimmingly for the New Jersey governor, you can bet a few of those same reporters would yawn and stay home. But this is different. The media super storm which has swirled around Christie seems to know no limits, and the sharks have been circling for months.

Fairly or unfairly, the dilemma he will face during the Republican Governors Conference is a no-win scenario. If he makes an appearance, even for a brief few questions, it will produce little of anything useful for the GOP and nothing but grief for Christie. Reporters will ask nothing about the conference, despite the importance that such confabs can sometimes generate. All questions will be directed, again, toward what the governor knew and when did he know it: lane closings, vindictive emails, threats to withhold Sandy relief funds, bullying of political opponents, and the issue of what evidence folks like David Wildstein might possess to incriminate the governor.

On the other hand, if Christie decides to duck reporters—and the governors send out someone else to field the media questions—Christie will be accused of dodging accountability, or worse, of hiding something. As a group, reporters tend to get more annoyed by a failure to appear than anything else, and you can bet the spin will be universally negative—even from Christie’s friends among the press corps—if he avoids any public appearances in which Q&A is the order of the day.

By most accounts and by most measures, artificial or otherwise, the clock is ticking on Christie’s window of opportunity. If he is unable to make Bridgegate go away by mid spring (so far there is no smoking gun linking him directly to any of the bad behavior for which he has been accused) his presidential ambitions for 2016 may be ruined. Even some in the GOP have begun slowly backing away for the governor. But his immediate culpability will become irrelevant by June or July, which many regard as the failsafe point for the start of exploratory action for presidential fundraising and organizing.

The test of his resolve to put the scandals behind him may come next week in Washington, when he makes that fateful decision about whether or not to appear before that shark-frenzied room of reporters, videographers and photographers.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Bridge to Nowhere; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; February 1, 2014.

A Super Storm in Jersey; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; January 20, 2014.

Chris Christie: A Bridge Too Far; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; January 13, 2014.

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Bridge to Nowhere

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By R. Alan Clanton, Thursday Review editor

(Originally published Saturday, February 1, 2014) Bridges have a beginning, middle, and an end—with a lot of access ramps and lanes to shepherd the traffic in, or to divert it away.  And sometimes, there are obstacles.

So it is with some of the great political love affairs of the past generations.  Gary Hart was once held in such high esteem by the progressives and reformers within the Democratic Party (especially after Walter Mondale’s crushing defeat at the hands of Ronald Reagan in 1984) that Hart’s ascendancy to the nomination was regarded as a fait accompli.  It did not happen. More recently, in the election cycle of 2011 and 2012, Herman Cain was so popular with GOP conservatives and Tea Partiers that his brief, meteoric rise seemed to upend the Republican procession and disrupt the status quo of both parties.  But Cain crashed.

In each case, partisan euphoria was replaced with harsh reality: politicians are not saviors, but flawed mortals, though we still have the tendency to want to elevate some political figures to sainthood.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has been, by some accounts, the most talked about potential savior the Republican Party has had in some years, and the GOP’s de facto front runner.  Given a top speaking slot at the GOP convention in Tampa in 2012, and more recently chosen to lead the Republican Governor’s Association, he shares the top tier of presidential hopefuls with a small handful of well-known names: Paul Ryan, Jeb Bush, Rand Paul, Bobby Jindal.  But Chris Christie’s name is the one most often considered at the top of that short list.
Now, that position of preeminence appears to be challenged by what has become, surely, the biggest challenge to Christie’s political reputation as tough-talking and blunt, but an honest broker and a man of the people.

David Wildstein, an administrator for the Port of Authority of New York and New Jersey, now claims that he has written proof that the governor was aware of a deliberate campaign of lane closures which caused massive traffic jams on the George Washington Bridge back in September.  The four-day long vehicular gridlock was the apparent result of political payback, retribution against Fort Lee mayor Mark Sokolich, a Democrat who did not publicly back Christie during the governor’s re-election campaign.

Wildstein, who resigned from the Port Authority a few months ago, has previously said that the lane closures were part of a traffic study.  Wildstein’s former boss at the Port Authority, Bill Baroni, has also said the lane closures were part of a long-term study, though the Port Authority has stated that there was no official clearance for any such study.  Wildstein and Baroni were both known to be Christie allies.

But in December, text messages and emails revealed what appeared to be a pattern of cooperation between top members of the governor’s staff and some employees of the Port Authority, and the bridge scandal quickly became front page news across the country.  Then, in what some regarded as a “piling on” by Democrats eager to puncture the governor’s presidential prospects, things got worse for Christie, very fast.

There were accusations that the governor misused Hurricane Sandy funds to create slick television ads touting a return to normalcy for business and tourism.  Though the ads were technically an appropriate use of the money under federal guidelines, they were regarded by some critics as little more than political ads designed to boost his re-election chances, and others complained that the ads—at the least—were simply wasteful spending in a state still beset with problems of reconstruction and repair.  At worst, the television spots were political ads.  A production company with a higher bid than others had been selected, and its scripts all called for the governor and his family to make appearances in the ads.  Scripts prepared by the other film and video companies competing for the contract did not feature the governor.

Then, days later, there were more accusations of bullying and threats of withholding funds, most notably from Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer.  Zimmer said that she was approached by Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno and told, in essence, that her ability to receive Sandy relief funds would be contingent upon her support of a major redevelopment project worth billions backed by investors with close ties to the governor.  And despite Guadagno’s denials that any such threat was issued, Zimmer says the proof could be found in her own journal entries from that same day.

The governor held an epic two-hour long press conference as the entire nation watched, and during that appearance he denied any wrongdoing, claiming he had been blindsided by the events.  He was apologetic and contrite.  Most regarded his explanations as sincere.  In his State of the State address days later (in what have been the most watched state speech in American history), he briefly touched on the scandals, but said that New Jersey needs to move forward.
Was it possible that the governor was truly betrayed by vindictive staffers for whom perhaps the wrong top-down standard of leadership had been set?  Without a smoking gun, Christie could still survive.  Maybe.

By last week most reporters and analysts suggested ominously that the entire mess had reached a precarious tipping point—one more surprise, and the governor’s political path to the presidency would end abruptly.

Now Wildstein tosses a new, potentially lethal stink bomb into the mix.

Through his attorney, the former Port Authority official says that Chris Christie’s seemingly sincere mea culpa to that packed room of reporters can be disputed by way of documents—as yet unseen and undisclosed—which prove the governor was aware of the political retribution (though the letter does not specifically mention the bridge fiasco).  If true, and if Wildstein’s new evidence demonstrates a direct link between the lane closures on the G.W. Bridge and the governor, Christie’s political future could be limited.  In fact, some in New Jersey are already calling for his resignation.

Christie’s defenders are quick to point out that Wildstein is seeking a plea bargain with the investigators who are circling ever more closely to the core of the case.  Wildstein is also demanding that the Port Authority pay for his legal defense.  And like other aspects of this unfolding political drama, some observers question why Wildstein has waited until now to claim to be in possession of evidence which investigators say he should have made available six weeks ago.  (There were similar questions raised when Hoboken’s mayor Zimmer waited nine months to reveal the alleged quid pro quo on Sandy relief funds).

Among Republicans, Christie has his defenders and his detractors.  His advocates suggest that there is credible evidence that the entire affair is an organized hatchet job, pointing out that the only person to gain long term advantage from the mess is potential Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, the presumed front-runner for Democrats.  Indeed, some polls have shown the New Jersey governor as the only Republican able to best the Senator in theoretical match-ups for 2016.  Former New York mayor Rudy Guiliani has suggested that because of that polling parity between the two top candidates, the whole brouhaha has been engineered by Democratic strategists as a way to derail any threat to Clinton.

But a few in the GOP see that affair as being about as well-timed as it could be: either the governor is shown to be innocent of any direct connection to the various charges, including Wildstein’s recent allegations, in which Christie walks away, perhaps stronger for the ordeal (especially if it is shown that Democrats engineered a witch-hunt); or, Chris Christie goes down now, early, before his political collapse damages the Republican primary and debate narrative beginning, presumably, 15 or 16 months from now.  Some in the GOP suggest that a Christie meltdown in, say, late 2015, would spell disaster for a party seeking to find its way back from its poor performance in November 2012.  One independent friend said that for Republicans it would “be like watching the Hindenburg collapse in flames in Lakehurst, N.J.”

In the meantime New Jersey takes a break from the scandal and enjoys a long weekend of Super Bowl activity.  On Monday the business of politics returns, and with it, more potential bombshells in what has become known, too easily, as Bridgegate.

Related Thursday Review articles:

A Super Storm in Jersey; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; January 20, 2014.
Chris Christie: A Bridge Too Far; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; January 13, 2014.

Photo composite above by Alan Clanton; Chris Christie photo and Republican National Convention photo, Alan Clanton for Thursday Review.

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