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Could Legal Challenges Boost Perry, Christie, Walker in '16?

Could Legal Challenges Boost Perry, Christie, Walker in '16?

By Scott Conroy - August 21, 2014

Chris Christie, Scott Walker and Rick Perry are all positioning themselves to enter the 2016 presidential race as top-tier candidates for the Republican nomination.   

But before concerning themselves in earnest with becoming the next GOP standard-bearer, these three governors must contend with a shared, and unpleasant, distinction: Each man, or his administration, faces accusations of legal wrongdoing. 

For months, Christie has been trying to move beyond investigations into a decision by members of his administration to close traffic lanes on the George Washington Bridge last September in an apparent act of political revenge.  

Meanwhile, Walker has faced down an inquiry into whether he and top aides coordinated illegally with outside groups during his 2012 recall election. A federal judge ordered the investigation halted, but that decision is currently under appeal. 

Perry became the latest member of this club no one wants to join when he was indicted last week by a grand jury in Travis County, Texas. 

The Texas governor turned himself in Tuesday at an Austin courthouse for booking on two felony charges. The grand jury action stems from his veto of $7.5 million in state funding for a public integrity unit following the refusal of Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg to resign after she was arrested for drunk driving last year.

Perry is accused of abusing his power, but an array of voices -- ranging from fellow conservatives (and potential 2016 contenders) Ted Cruz and Bobby Jindal to former Obama senior adviser David Axelrod and the liberal-leaning New York Times editorial board -- have criticized the indictment as judicial overreach.  

Many GOP strategists, however, believe the charges will end up serving Perry well politically.  

“Republican primary voters are actually energized when Democrats attempt to criminalize politics,” GOP operative Jim Dyke told RCP. 

Allies of Christie and Walker have also tried to turn the alleged transgressions on their head by suggesting the high-profile governors are the victims of Democrats’ plots to undermine their presidential chances. 

It’s a strategy that may pay dividends in a 2016 primary fight, as all three would be courting conservative voters who will likely see the investigations as badges of honor.

Bob Haus, who helmed Perry’s 2012 campaign in Iowa and is poised to reprise that role in 2016, said the “overwhelming response” from activists in the nation’s first voting state has been strongly supportive. 

“They see the actions against Governor Perry for what they are: raw politics,” Haus said. “I would also say that Governor Perry has shown great strength and resolve in this matter. He and his team have managed this issue exceptionally well, and have shown they will fight this aggressively.” 

If Perry is truly worried about the 109 years of jail time he could face if convicted, he isn’t showing it. Rather than shirking from the difficult images that came with his court appearance, Perry addressed the media on Tuesday, smiled for his mug shot, and even tweeted a photo of himself enjoying an ice cream cone after being booked. 

"We don't settle political differences with indictments in this country," a defiant Perry said. "It is outrageous that some would use partisan theatrics to rip away at the very fabric of our state's constitution." 

And Perry will continue his aggressive schedule of visits to early primary states with stops in New Hampshire on Friday and South Carolina next week.   

During his open media events in both states, Perry is sure to receive a deluge of questions about the indictment. But he’s clearly in no mood to hide.

The same goes for Christie. As chairman of the Republican Governors Organization, he has engaged in similar travel around the country -- including two recent trips to New Hampshire. 

After once again showing off his dance moves in the Hamptons last weekend, Christie is heading to Mexico next month on what is billed as a trade mission. But the trip will double as a chance for the ambitious governor to build his foreign policy bona fides and highlight his ties to the Hispanic community.

With his own re-election fight to worry about this year, Walker has been a bit more sedate in his public appearances. But he, too, has condemned aggressively the inquiry into his campaign as a “partisan investigation” -- a characterization that is likely to resonate with many national Republicans if he wins a second term and enters the 2016 race.   

Still, Democrats see plenty of reason to keep the heat on all three GOP governors.  

DNC Communications Director Mo Elleithee suggested that, taken collectively, the circumstances throw cold water on the case national Republicans have been making since the party’s 2012 defeat: that GOP governors have proven themselves to be particularly effective leaders in their states.  

“When you look at their argument that they are reformers who know how to get results, I think we are now seeing a pretty clear pattern that the only result that you can count on is that there’s going to be some sort of investigation,” Elleithee said. “They’re making my job a whole lot easier.” 

Whether any or all of the three investigations will play a significant role in the primary fight remains to be seen. Many Republicans who also are considering 2016 bids have come to the defense of Christie, Walker and Perry, suggesting just how complicated the politics of the situations remain.  

Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, however, recently forecast how one of the embattled governors may soon find himself the victim of attack ads. 

Paul was asked last week by a Kentucky television station to cite the first word that comes to mind when he hears Christie’s name. 

His response: “Bridges.”

Scott Conroy is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at sconroy@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @RealClearScott.

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