Amid Woes, Christie Finds Sympathy on the Right

Amid Woes, Christie Finds Sympathy on the Right
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It's no secret that the relationship between Chris Christie and the conservative grassroots of his party has long been fraught.

From his apostasy on gun control to his nuanced take on gay marriage, the same policy positions that helped Christie mitigate the challenges any Republican faces when running in deep-blue New Jersey also raised questions about his ability to woo the GOP base in presidential primaries.

The outbreak of the “Bridgegate” scandal has led to a near-constant public barrage against the two-term governor from Democrats and around-the-clock scrutiny in the national media. In particular, the New York Times has devoted significant resources to the story, with several of the paper’s top political reporters covering the investigation.

On Friday, the Times reported that the attorney for David Wildstein -- the former Port Authority official who administered the traffic lane closures on the George Washington Bridge last September, which set off the political retribution scandal -- indicated his client’s contention that Christie knew about the closings at the time and that evidence exists to prove it.

Christie has denied any knowledge of the lane closings until the episode was reported in the news. In light of Friday’s allegations and other recent developments, longtime Christie foes in the state doubt the scandal will carry any silver lining for the embattled man at its center.

And as a result of that, some of the governor’s major skeptics on the right have shifted their attitudes toward him. For these conservative naysayers, the enemy of their enemy has become their friend -- for the time being, at least.

This phenomenon has been particularly noticeable to some Republican operatives gearing up for the 2016 campaign in parts of the country long considered iffy terrain for Christie, such as the key primary state of South Carolina.

“A lot of Republicans down here are asking why the national media are holding Chris Christie to a standard on a turnpike issue that they’re not holding Obama to when four Americans, including the ambassador, [were] killed in Benghazi,” said longtime South Carolina GOP strategist Bob McAlister. “Even Christie detractors down here are seeing that as Exhibit A to how the media treat Democrats differently than Republicans.”

No one is arguing that Christie’s overall standing in a prospective 2016 race has improved.

To the contrary, the ongoing investigations of alleged wrongdoing by members of his administration appear to be having a severely negative effect. Both nationally and in his home state, the still-unfolding scandal has sunk Christie’s numbers and dented his standing in the lead-up to his expected bid for the White House.

“Tea Party people are gloating over this,” said New Jersey GOP strategist Rick Shaftan, a longtime antagonist of the governor’s. “Nobody’s defending him.”

But a closer look at a Rutgers-Eagleton poll released last week lends credence to the idea that Christie’s standing has not -- at this point -- sunk so steeply among the demographic most immediately relevant to his aspirations: Though that survey found his approval rating down by a whopping 26 percentage points among Democrats since the scandal broke, among Republicans in the state, Christie still enjoyed a favorability level of 78 percent and a job approval rating of 83 percent.

And as he prepares to embark on a scheduled national fundraising tour in his role as head of the Republican Governors Association, he may find some new defenders in unexpected places. Already, it’s not just been longtime allies and moderate Republicans such as former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani who have been standing by him.

During his appearance at the Republican National Committee’s winter meeting last week, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee -- a potential 2016 rival who has criticized any moves to downplay the GOP’s platform on social issues -- offered a full-throated defense of his fellow Republican.

“There’s nothing that’s tied him to that, and I think he did what he should have done,” Huckabee said when asked about Christie’s role in the Bridgegate scandal. “He went and answered every question that was thrown at him, he took responsibility, even though he didn’t personally order the decision to be made about the bridge.”

On conservative talk radio, Bridgegate has prompted a range of reactions from three of the most influential talkers on the American right -- none of whom had been particularly eager to defend Christie before the scandal broke.

After Christie won re-election easily in November, Sean Hannity told listeners the New Jersey governor is “not in the mainstream of conservatism,” adding, "I don't know what the big appeal of Christie is, just based on the record."

But after the scandal hit and the resulting media frenzy took flight, Hannity praised him for showing “moral courage” in firing members of his team and enduring a grueling and lengthy press conference.

“He left himself no wiggle room. I thought it was a pretty ballsy move and … really refreshing to see a politician take responsibility,” Hannity added.

In the years immediately after Christie’s 2009 election, Rush Limbaugh often praised his tough-talking persona and strong stance against public sector unions. But that tune changed after Christie embraced President Obama in Superstorm Sandy’s aftermath.

In the wake of the recent scandal, however, Limbaugh seemed to shift yet again, reminding his legions of listeners, “The media can't wait to go destroy Chris Christie.”

Of the “big three” conservative radio hosts, Mark Levin remains the most firmly aligned against the man he has called a “big slob,” saying that Christie’s denials regarding the Bridgegate episode “reminded me of his dear, close friend, Barack Obama.”

Online, influential conservative voices have risen to Christie’s defense, albeit with plenty of nuance.

RedState.com’s Erick Erickson told RealClearPolitics that it was “absolutely crazy” for anyone to believe that Christie’s 2016 hopes had been quashed. “I've been seeing a lot of conservatives rally to defend Christie from the media,” Erickson said before adding an important qualification. “But every single one, including me, has put in the caveat that this does not mean we support him for president.”

Ben Shapiro, editor in chief of TruthRevolt.org and editor-at-large at Breitbart.com, tweeted in the early days of Bridgegate that Christie’s role in the scandal “may be impeachable, not just indicative of inappropriateness of a 2016 run.”

But in an interview with RCP, Shapiro agreed that the intense coverage of the scandal has “100 percent, absolutely” changed the Garden State governor’s relationship with conservative activists.

Though he is skeptical that any positive feelings toward Christie on the right will last, Shapiro agreed that the new dynamic was “almost entirely driven by the fact that the media made this their number one story for weeks.”

Of course, if Wildstein’s allegations prove true, Christie won’t have much chance of winning the GOP nomination, let alone the presidency. But if Wildstein is wrong, it might just amplify conservative antipathy for the media -- especially since it was the Times, much loathed in conservative circles, that broke the story -- easing pressure from the right for a bit longer. 

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