Elections

Tracing Chris Christie's Fall From the Top

Once considered a "master of disaster" and frontrunner in the presidential race, the New Jersey governor is now neither.
by | May 1, 2015
(AP/Mel Evans)

It's a long time since Chris Christie has gotten a break politically. The New Jersey governor, who was once a likely frontrunner for the GOP presidential nomination in 2016, has slipped well behind.

The Real Clear Politics average of recent national polls shows Christie with 6 percent support, well down from his high of 20 percent at the end of 2013. Even state Sen. Joseph Kyrillos, a close ally who chaired Christie's gubernatorial campaign, is backing former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. Christie's standing at home has slipped as well. His New Jersey approval rating hit a new low of 38 percent in a Quinnipiac University poll released on April 20.

Christie blames the media for his poor showing.

"If you're going to have relentlessly negative coverage from the media, it's going to affect your poll numbers," he said during a recent radio appearance.

Other factors are at play, though. The state's economic performance has been lackluster. It ranks near the bottom in job creation, having gained back just over half the jobs it lost during the recession. And now Christie's signature initiative -- an overhaul of pension and health benefits for public employees -- is in serious legal jeopardy. A Superior Court judge ruled in February that the governor violated pension funding rules. The New Jersey Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in the case on Wednesday.

"That was kind of the hallmark of his first term in office and that was the example he used to catapult to national fame," said Brigid Harrison, a Montclair State University political scientist. "He can't brag about that now."

The so-called Bridgegate scandal remains a headache, and the fact that David Wildstein, the former director of Interstate Capital Projects for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, pleaded guilty on Friday to having conspired to "punish" the mayor, isn't helping. Wildstein was a Christie appointee to the Port Authority. Emails published last year showed that Wildstein and Bridget Anne Kelly, Christie's deputy chief of staff, intentionally shut down lanes approaching the George Washington Bridge in 2013 in an apparent act of political payback against a mayor who had refused to endorse Christie's bid for a second term. No one has produced evidence to show that Christie knew about the closings at the time, but Wildstein's attorney insisted that "evidence exists." "I had no knowledge or involvement in the planning or execution of this act," Christie tweeted Friday. Regardless, the scandal has hurt the governor's standing,  both nationally and at home.

"Given the subpoenas that we know about, we know the U.S. attorney is looking much more closely now at the [Port Authority] contracts that were pushed through and seemed to benefit close associates of the governor," said Gordon MacInnes, president of New Jersey Policy Perspective, a left-leaning policy research group.

Christie's second term is playing out a lot differently than his first. After defeating Democrat Jon Corzine in 2009, Christie quickly emerged as a dominant figure in state politics. He masterfully employed town halls and social media to project an image of himself as a forceful personality, with a no-nonsense approach and a solid command of the issues.

"In his first term, he really had a remarkable record of getting what he wanted, of appearing to win every confrontation on every initiative he put forward and not be challenged particularly strongly," said John Weingart, director of the Rutgers University Center on the American Governor.

In 2011, Christie pushed through a pension and health benefits package that required workers to pay more into the system and receive less in benefits. The state was supposed to increase its contributions over time. Through his use of the line-item veto, however, Christie underfunded the system by $1.6 billion. That's a violation of workers rights to a fully funded pension program, according to the Superior Court ruling.

At the time, the pension deal helped raise Christie's profile nationally as someone willing to take on tough issues and entrenched interest groups. He gave a highly publicized speech in 2011 at the Reagan Library, leading to speculation that he was Nancy Reagan's top pick for president in 2012.

Christie received entreaties from top GOP donors to run. Mitt Romney considering him as a potential running mate. But the Romney camp was not pleased with his performance at the Republican National Convention, when Christie used the keynote address to talk far more about himself than the party's nominee.

Many other Republicans objected when Christie praised and embraced President Obama in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy. Coming just days before the election, partisans viewed this as a betrayal. Christie's handling of the storm, however, won raves at home. The Newark Star-Ledger called him a "master of disaster," saying he thrived amid chaos. "He dealt with that with confidence and concern, and people had a sense of that," MacInnes said.

Christie's approval ratings shot up into the 70s. He had no trouble winning re-election in 2013, taking 60 percent of the vote.

But the Bridgegate scandal dominated national headlines not long after, leading Christie to lose his bipartisan sheen. In his second term, he's found it tougher to make deals with Democrats on matters such as fixing the state's transportation funding problems.

"We were hearing late last year and in early 2015 that the transportation trust fund was going to be broke as of June," said Bill Dressell, executive director of the New Jersey League of Municipalities. "Magically, back in March, they found additional bonding capacity that they cobbled together to get through 2015."

No one thinks the solution will hold for long. Many in Trenton are calling for a gas tax increase, but Christie won't hear of it. Although Christie brags about capping on local property tax rates during his first year in office, municipalities have been able to find exemptions to the cap, such as health, construction and pension costs. They have also increased user fees, undermining the argument that local tax bills have been brought under control.

"Although the 2 percent cap imposed in 2010 on increases in the property tax levy has slowed the growth of tax bills, it hasn't halted their rise," the Asbury Park-Press reported recently.

The state's bond rating has been lowered repeatedly, with the three major rating agencies lowering New Jersey's score three times each during Christie's time in office.

Christie also received considerable negative attention in April when word leaked that he proposed settling an environmental cleanup lawsuit against Exxon Mobil Corp. for $225 million. The state sought nearly $9 billion initially.

In 2014, Christie enjoyed considerable success as the head of the Republican Governors Association, raising big dollars and campaigning for lots of successful GOP candidates. But his frequent out-of-state travel in that role and as a presidential hopeful has led to complaints at home. The perception hasn't helped his poll rating. With a weak economy and his top legislative achievement at risk, Christie now looks much weaker at home.

"It's hard to come up with a huge policy that's regarded really favorably," Harrison said.

*This story has been updated

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