By Maddie Hanna and Andrew Seidman
Overnight, it seemed, Gov. Christie's fortunes reversed.
The governor, battling historically bad approval ratings and coming off convictions of two of his former aides in a federal trial, was back on the winning team.
Donald Trump's election early Wednesday was also a victory for Christie, who was among the first Republican leaders to endorse the real estate mogul after ending his own presidential bid -- and who early on was named chairman of Trump's White House transition team. Christie was given the responsibility of charting a plan for the president-elect's first 100 days in office.
Now, the governor's future is once again an open question.
"He has an opportunity to be at the epicenter of a presidential administration," said Bruce Haynes, a GOP strategist in Washington. "It's not too small of an observation to say that Tuesday night has potentially changed the entire trajectory of Chris Christie's political life."
The governor was on stage as Trump claimed victory early Wednesday morning. "Gov. Chris Christie, folks, was unbelievable," Trump said.
Christie didn't have a public schedule Wednesday in New Jersey. A spokesman for the governor said he could not comment on where the governor was, his plans over the next few days, or how his transition duties might change now that Trump has been elected.
Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) said he wouldn't be surprised if Christie resigned before his term ends in January 2018 to join Trump. In that scenario, Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno would become governor. The 2017 gubernatorial primaries are in June.
Given Christie's early and steadfast support for Trump, the governor would probably get "whatever he wants" in a Trump administration, Sweeney said.
Christie faded from public view in the final weeks of Trump's campaign while testimony in the trial over the George Washington Bridge lane closures cast doubt on the governor's version of events in the scandal.
But throughout the campaign, he stood by Trump, even as other Republicans wavered or jumped ship.
As members of both parties attacked Trump for saying a Mexican-American judge couldn't fairly oversee a lawsuit involving one of the New Yorker's businesses because Trump had proposed building a wall on the southern border, Christie said he knew Trump wasn't racist.
And while Christie criticized Trump's comments in the 2005 Access Hollywood videotape -- calling the businessman's boast about grabbing women by the genitals "indefensible" -- he said he took Trump at his word that he hadn't sexually assaulted anyone.
"He made a decision to support Donald Trump. And he stuck with him, through thick and thin," said Jon Bramnick, the Republican minority leader of the New Jersey Assembly and a close Christie ally. "I think that works well long-term, if that's the type of person you are."
Trump's election could not have come at a better time for Christie.
On Friday, a federal jury convicted Christie's former deputy chief of staff, Bridget Anne Kelly, and Christie's former top executive appointee at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, Bill Baroni, of intentionally misusing agency resources as part of an illicit political payback scheme.
Prosecutors accused Kelly and Baroni of conspiring with former Port Authority official David Wildstein to cause massive traffic jams near the George Washington Bridge in September 2013 to punish a local mayor for his refusal to endorse Christie's reelection campaign that year.
Although prosecutors brought charges against only those three individuals, Christie was often the center of attention during six weeks of testimony, depicted at times as a recklessly ambitious, abusive boss.
The trial commenced just months after Christie's mentor and top appointee at the Port Authority, chairman David Samson, pleaded guilty to bribing United Airlines to initiate a money-losing route from Newark to an airport close to Samson's South Carolina vacation home.
Including Samson, four top Christie allies have been convicted of federal crimes. A fifth has pleaded not guilty in the United Airlines scheme.
Meantime, Christie's approval rating in New Jersey dropped to an all-time low of 20 percent, and the Republicans and Democrats hoping to succeed him as governor have been running away from his policies.
Yet around 2:30 a.m. Wednesday, Christie stood on stage at a New York victory party with Trump and other supporters of the president-elect.
"I would never count Chris Christie out," said Mike DuHaime, who was the chief political strategist for Christie's gubernatorial and presidential campaigns, and has known him for close to 20 years.
"Gov. Christie has been very level-headed throughout" his career, DuHaime said, and "understands better than most the nature of the ebbs and flows of politics."
DuHaime said it would be premature to speculate on whether Christie would take a job in Trump's administration, adding the governor was focusing on the transition.
Competition for high-level administration jobs "can often be brutal," said Haynes, the Republican strategist in Washington. Christie "has to worry as much about what fellow Republicans might do to him as Democrats."
While the bridge scandal could present a hurdle for Christie, "I don't know that his hurdles are any higher" than those facing other potential Trump appointees, including former House speaker Newt Gingrich and former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, Haynes said.
The governor has told reporters on several occasions that he was looking forward to working in the private sector after more than a decade in public office.
Now that Trump has pulled off a stunning victory, Christie may well have a shot at rehabilitating his public image with a new job in Washington.
"I can't tell you how many times I've been told my political career is over," Christie told Charlie Rose in CBS Monday interview. "Here I am."
(c)2016 The Philadelphia Inquirer