The speculation is rife that the greatest beneficiary of the bridgegate scandal that's embroiled New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is Hillary Clinton. In a 2016 presidential election showdown between Clinton and Christie, some straw polls show the governor narrowly edging Clinton out for the White House. No other Republican has an edge over Clinton. Christie's plight and the prospect of more revelations that could permanently tar the governor, which now include talk of impeachment, has sent Democratic strategists into even greater delirium. But even before bridgegate, Christie had a huge problem. It had absolutely nothing to do with Clinton or any other Democrat. It has everything to do with his own party.
Put bluntly, a lot of Republicans don't like Christie. More than a few have not been shy in publicly lambasting him. They also took great delight in the governor's political woes, and like Clinton could be the big beneficiaries of a Christie plummet.
Christie's pluses that no other potential 2016 GOP presidential contender has are well known. He's got national name recognition. He can tap the deep pockets of legions of banking and corporate executives. By GOP standards he's a conservative willing to reach across the aisle and work with Democrats. He has a reputation as a governor that can get things done. Though Christie has firmly staked out positions opposing gay marriage, abortion, and at every turn primping his credential as an anti-big government champion and fiscal conservative this has done nothing to allay the deep suspicion of ultra-conservatives that he's a big Eastern state, closet moderate, who would make nice at every turn with Democrats as he did on several occasions with President Obama. These are the exact qualities that infuriate GOP ultraconservatives, tea party leaders and backers, and many Christian evangelicals.
Their hard antipathy toward Christie was on blatant and insulting display in early 2013 when he announced that he would expand Medicaid under the new federal health law, Tea Party Nation tweeted "Liberal jello blob Chris Christie thanks Obama by expanding Obamacare to NJ." It was followed by a #liberalsellout hashtag. Christie also was not invited to speak at the Conservative Political Action Conference soon after because of his allegedly too "liberal" position on the issues.
The tea party's fortunes in recent times have plunged. Polls overwhelmingly show that more Americans than ever are either hostile or indifferent to the party. But that says less about the tea party's seemingly faded political drop, than the hard reality that the party still has formidable power to cajole, hector, and bully GOP leaders into doing its bidding, or into keeping silent. A dozen Republican senators will have to defend their seat in the mid-term elections. In some cases, their biggest challenge won't come from a Democratic opponent but from another Republican in the GOP primaries. Their opponents will be enthusiastically supported by the tea party, and they are likely to have substantial amounts of campaign cash to mount a serious challenge. They likelihood of an upset win by any of them is slim. But a draining, divisive, bruising, and mud-slinging GOP primary could do enough damage by any of them to the incumbent to make them ripe for a Democratic upset.
This would badly upset the GOP's best laid plan to take back the Senate. GOP party regulars privately wring their hands and warn that the party is facing disaster again by nominating unelectable tea party backed candidates, or at the very least, in waging a civil war in a primary. They still look hard over their shoulder at the tea party and its perceived power to make life miserable for any GOP incumbent that does not tow the party line.
If Christie lurches hard to the right to appease the tea party and GOP ultraconservatives he can kiss off a huge bloc of independents. This would be fatal. GOP mainstream leaders, even in the best of tea party days were anxious, if not downright terrified, that their shock battalions might get to unruly, and go too far overboard, and alienate the moderate and conservative independents that they got back in the GOP fold in 2010. They lost them in 2008 and 2012 and their loss again in 2016 would sink the GOP's already shaky prospects for a White House win.
So Christie's dilemma is the GOP's dilemma. They have no one else to field with the charisma, stature, and seeming presidential electability as Christie. But the rabid Christie antagonists virtually ensure that the GOP's civil war will rage even hotter at the prospect of a Christie nomination. That is if he survives the scandal. In any case, Christie's troubles are a big gift not just to Hillary, but to the right.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is a frequent political commentator on MSNBC and a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on American Urban Radio Network. He is the author of How Obama Governed: The Year of Crisis and Challenge. He is an associate editor of New America Media. He is the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KPFK-Radio and the Pacifica Network.