Four years ago, Govs. Chris Christie of New Jersey and Robert F. McDonnell of Virginia were stars. Both Republicans, they had just been elected to lead states carried the year before by Democrat Barack Obama. Both broke a string of Democratic governors in their states by emphasizing fiscal policy instead of social issues.
The New Jerseyan's straight talk and substantial girth marked him as an unconventional politician. The Virginian's results-oriented style led fellow GOP governors to pick the former Army officer as their leader in the crucial 2012 election cycle. Party stalwarts talked up a national ticket in 2016 with one or both their names on it.
Today, the Christie-McDonnell narrative has been revised in a way no one could have foreseen as recently as a year ago. Christie appears headed towards an easy re-election on Nov. 5, and he is among the best known Republicans expected to run for president in 2016. But McDonnell, who under Virginia law cannot succeed himself, will leave office in January stained by a scandal that threatens to derail his 22-year political career.
“It's clear one is moving forward and one is going nowhere,” said Larry Sabato, a longtime political analyst and University of Virginia professor.
McDonnell and his family are under state and federal investigations of their relationship with a Richmond-area executive who gave them $150,000 in gifts, money and loans at a time McDonnell and his wife were promoting the company's nutrition supplement. Among the gifts: a $6,500 Rolex watch for the governor, a $15,000 Fifth Avenue shopping trip for the first lady, a $10,000 engagement gift to one of McDonnell's daughters and $15,000 to cater another daughter's wedding.
McDonnell apologized, pledged to return the gifts and maintained he did not break any laws. Virginia's ethics laws allow elected officials to accept gifts, but they must report those worth more than $50. McDonnell initially did not disclose the watch. He said the gifts to his daughters were legal because they were not to him. And he argued a $70,000 loan to a real estate company he and his sister own was a corporate, not personal, loan so did not have to be reported.
Even if McDonnell never faces criminal charges, the way he has handled the situation has cost him with Virginia residents, a majority of whom view him unfavorably, according to recent polls.
The scandal has spilled over into the campaign to succeed McDonnell. The GOP nominee, Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, also initially did not report gifts he took from the businessman, who Cuccinelli said he met through McDonnell. At first he said he would not return the gifts. But under pressure from his Democratic opponent, Terry McAuliffe, Cuccinelli donated the $18,000 value of the gifts to a charity. Polls show he is trailing McAuliffe, a businessman and party fundraiser.
At the beginning of his final year in office, it appeared McDonnell would leave a strong legacy. He closed budget gaps through deep spending cuts. Virginia's revenues grew faster than those of most states during the recovery, allowing McDonnell to use surplus money to rebuild rainy day funds and even give state workers bonuses. He shored up the public pension fund through higher employee contributions.
“Virginia has never been stronger,” McDonnell has said repeatedly in defending his record.
McDonnell's signature accomplishment solidified his reputation as a bipartisan problem solver. While previous governors had failed for 25 years to persuade lawmakers to approve a statewide transportation financing plan, McDonnell succeeded in pushing through a $6 billion package. The rub was that McDonnell agreed to raise taxes to help pay for the plan, breaking a no-tax campaign pledge and angering conservatives nationally and in Virginia, including Cuccinelli.
But the governor had little time to bask in the achievement as disclosures about his relationship with the businessman, Jonnie R. Williams, began dribbling out in the media.. Drip by drip, the scandal submerged McDonnell. Instead of preparing for a 2016 presidential campaign, McDonnell is hoping to escape prosecution, with taxpayers begrudgingly covering his legal expenses.
“Unfortunately this extraordinary accomplishment of a bipartisan transportation bill that eluded so many of his predecessors will be overshadowed by this scandal,” said Stephen J. Farnsworth, a professor at the University of Mary Washington. “Because of the sordid nature of the scandal it is difficult to imagine the governor winning an elected office again.”
Christie has duplicated McDonnell's success while avoiding a scandal. The former U.S. attorney wiped out an inherited budget deficit by cutting government spending and jobs and eliminating dozens of programs, rather than raising taxes. He also capped the annual rate of property tax increases, tightened teacher tenure requirements and boosted aid to education. He battled New Jersey's public employee unions and Democrats to establish cost-cutting public pension reforms.
Those accomplishments alone would have strengthened Christie's re-election bid, but it was his leadership during Hurricane Sandy last fall that raised his profile inside and outside of New Jersey. Sandy was the worst storm to hit the state in 100 years and Christie took it personally, hugging displaced residents and business owners as he inspected the ravaged beach communities of his youth, at times with tears in his eyes. He pressed Congress to expedite aid and angered some Republicans by touring the damaged areas with President Obama days before the 2012 election.
The storm response fit nicely into Christie's story line that he was leading a bipartisan “New Jersey comeback” from the fiscal disaster of the recession as well as a natural disaster.
“You can't underestimate the bump he got because of Hurricane Sandy,” said Seton Hall associate professor Matthew Hale. “He gave a sense that at the end of the day Chris Christie will be there fighting for New Jersey. People are willing to give him a pass on some of his policies because there's an authenticity that resonates with people.”
Christie's critics note that he has sought to prevent same-sex marriage in a state that supports it, and has vetoed bills to raise the minimum wage. And despite the comeback claim, New Jersey's unemployment rate is higher than the national average. New Jersey's budget reserves are low, its revenues are not keeping up with its expenses and its pension costs are rising despite the reforms.
Still, a solid majority of New Jerseyans say they approve of the job Christie is doing, and polls show him with a double-digit lead over challenger Barbara Buono, a Democratic state senator. It does not help Buono that the Senate president recently praised Christie for working with Democrats or that the Essex County executive, a Democrat, has endorsed the incumbent Republican. Newark Mayor Cory Booker, a Democrat elected this week to the U.S. Senate in a special election, also talks up Christie.
The federal shutdown has given Christie an opportunity to burnish the bipartisan image many analysts say will be needed for a Republican to win the White House in 2016. “Everything we've done has been a bipartisan accomplishment,” Christie said in a campaign TV commercial. “It's my job to make sure that compromise happens. You see, as long as you stick to your principles, compromise isn't a dirty word.”
Whether Christie's personal style will attract supporters in places like Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina remains to be seen. Right now at least, the only thing Christie appears to be losing is weight, the result of lap band surgery earlier this year.
“People used to laugh about New Jersey,” Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno said recently, according to the Newark Star-Ledger. “They used to say Snooki and the Sopranos. Now, go anywhere in the country…and you say, ‘What do you think of New Jersey now?' And they will say, ‘New Jersey? I love that governor.'”