The trial of two key figures in the lane closure scandal that marked the nadir for New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s administration is underway, and some are predicting even longer odds for the N.J. G.O.P.’s eventual gubernatorial nominee in the aftermath. Short on resources and resigned to campaigning with the shadow of Christie’s record-low approval ratings over its head, the state Republican party’s best hope could be for the governor to step down early.
That move would see Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno, who has already announced her bid for the 2017 gubernatorial election, take Christie’s place in the event of Christie’s resignation or a successful impeachment.
Though it is unlikely that Christie will step down because of coming court evidence that both the prosecution and defense say implicate him in the 2013 Bridgegate scandal, Guadagno could be the party’s best hope for a respectable showing in an election that many have already called for the Democrats.
Montclair State University political scientist Brigid Harrison said that Guadagno, and Republicans as a whole, will have a tough row to hoe whether Christie stays or goes. She believes there is an outside chance that Democratic lawmakers might pursue impeachment.
“If in fact the governor knew during Bridgegate what was occurring, it certainly could be considered an impeachable offense according to the constitution,” she said. “It’s a much different gubernatorial race than with Christie in office.
“You have a Republican governor who has record low approval ratings, and one would think that they’re only going to plummet further in light of the revelations during the trial. You have a Republican party that has really been decimated in terms of both its war chest and its ability to raise money. And also, importantly the governor has really failed to develop a bench.”
Guadagno would have to distinguish herself from the rest of Christie’s Republican coalition in Trenton in just 18 months. Harrison called that a tall order for a woman who has been frequently relegated to ceremonial appearances during Christie’s time out of state. Other potential Republican hopefuls like Assemblyman Jack Ciatarelli (R-16) and Assembly Minority Jon Bramnick (R-21), she said, would also need to forge new images.
“Her talents have really been underutilized throughout this administration. There are state legislators, but because of the manner in which Governor Christie has corralled the state legislature, they have been unable to distance themselves or separate themselves from his record and legacy.”
Seton Hall University’s Matt Hale said that he doesn’t see a path forward for Guadagno as a latter day incumbent, or for any other Republican in the state. He doubts that Christie will leave office unless the prosecution or the defense can produce evidence that he not only knew about the scheme as it was happening, but set the plan in motion himself.
“I think that Christie has so damaged the Republican brand in the state that I don’t think any Republican can get elected,” he said. “She still is painted with the same brush as the Christie administration now.
“To the extent that she can get anything done at the end of the term, she would stand to benefit. I’m not sure that she would be able to do that because she would have to work with one of her principal gubernatorial rivals, [Senate President] Steve Sweeney. And there’s not a lot of incentive for either one to do that.”
Impeachment, he said, would not move quickly enough to be a factor.
“By the time the process would get up and rolling, Christie would be out,” he continued. “Absent a smoking gun, I think he’s going to ride it out.”