Earlier this summer, after a failed presidential bid, Gov. Chris Christie faced a choice. He could return his full focus to New Jersey, where he still had almost two years left in his term but where his national ambitions — and an unfolding scandal surrounding the closing of commuter lanes at the George Washington Bridge in 2013 — had earned him the scorn of many residents. Or he could attempt to salvage his hopes for national prominence by going all in with the party’s newly-crowned presidential nominee, a personal friend-turned political enemy who beat him in the primary — but who was by no means a shoo-in for the general election.
In the end, Christie chose the latter, signing on to Donald Trump’s campaign as chair of his White House transition team. And early Wednesday morning, that gamble paid off.
“We’ll know sooner rather than later what the governor intentions are,” said one New Jersey Republican party strategist, who added that a decision relating to Trump’s transition team in the next week will determine whether Christie vacates the governor’s office before the end of his term in early 2018.
With Trump’s 11th hour upset over Hillary Clinton in the presidential race, Christie has his best chance yet at transcending New Jersey politics and finding a home on the national stage. Experts say the real estate mogul’s win has left several departure strategies at Christie’s feet, including the possibility of a cabinet appointment — though the continuing Bridgegate scandal could complicate that. Or Trump could appoint Christie to a senior post that would not require Senate approval, such as an advisor or chief of staff.
Either way, such a development would have sweeping implications for Trenton, particularly in terms of how it might further shape the 2017 race for governor.
One Republican insider noted that whatever options are open to Christie, there’s little incentive for him to return to New Jersey. The state continues to face systemic problems and his approval rating among voters is below 20 percent. “What’s the opportunity to stay here, where you don’t have any political capital, your ratings are sub-20 percent favorables, you have no leverage, no willing partners in the Senate President or Speaker, not very likely to get anything done,” the NJGOP source said. “So spin his wheels here for a year? That just doesn’t strike me as anything he would do.”
Of course, should Christie leave the governor’s office, one of the biggest winners could be Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, who would be called on to serve out the remainder of her boss’ term. Guadagno herself is a prospective gubernatorial candidate, and Christie's departure would lend her the power of incumbency in a statewide bid against Democratic candidates.
It may also deter potential Republican challengers from making a run at the nomination.
“In all likelihood, that ends anybody else’s bid,” the NJGOP strategist said. “She becomes the nominee by default, because I think anyone credible — Jack Ciattarelli, for example — would step aside”
But Ciattarelli, a Republican Assemblyman from Somerset, has already declared his candidacy. A Christie critic, he said a change in leadership wouldn’t affect his campaign. “My intent in getting in the race early was to gauge whether or not Republicans around the state felt as I do that we should have a choice come the June primary of 2017,” he said. “Every signal I’ve gotten is that Republicans do want a choice.”
Guadagno said she intended to announce her plans for a gubernatorial run after the presidential election, but there are already signs that she is laying the groundwork. Earlier this year she launched the thinktank Building A Better New Jersey Together, a nonprofit that has as its executive director Bill Stepien, a former campaign manager and deputy chief of staff for Christie. She’s also sought to distance herself from the governor on key policy issues over the past several months, most recently coming out publicly against the gas-tax increase dedication amendment called Public Question #2, which Christie himself helped broker and supported.
Some Republicans who were critical of Christie’s leadership in the state say a Guadagno governorship wouldn’t be such a bad thing. “I admire her and what she’s done. She has certainly paid her dues on the rubber chicken circuit, going to various events around the state. So there’s a lot of goodwill that she’s built up in Republican circles because of her hard work and being all over the state. I think she’d be well prepared to be the governor if that eventuality comes through,” said state Senator Mike Doherty (R-Hunterdon), who has been touted in the past as gubernatorial material and who endorsed Trump in this year’s election.
Still, she wouldn’t have a guaranteed advantage, said John Weingart, associate director at the Eagleton Institute of Politics. Weingart pointed out that Guadagno — who for most of her tenure as lieutenant governor has quietly stood behind Christie’s shoulder — might find herself still having to fight her association with the controversial Republican.
“If she’s acting governor for something close to a year, on the one hand she gets more visible, but on the other hand she’s facing huge problems in the state, and she would be working with a Democratic Legislature,” he said. “So while she would certainly to be free to adopt policy positions that were different than Christie had, she’d be in a somewhat difficult place.”
“If she wants to oppose things that Governor Christie advocated then why she was silent for six years, and if she wants to support the thing he’s advocated, how does that translate to addressing the state’s financial issues?” Weingart added.
Guadagno may be New Jersey’s first lieutenant governor — she and Christie were elected on the same ticket shortly after legislation was passed establishing the position of lieutenant governor — but she wouldn’t be the only person in recent memory to step into the role of acting governor after the state’s top executive stepped down. That happened to Senate President Donald DiFrancesco in 2001, after former governor Christine Todd Whitman resigned in order to join the administration of then President George W. Bush, as well as Senate President Richard Codey in 2004, after former Gov. Jim McGreevey resigned under scandal.
Neither politician was able to leverage the power of the office into fully-fledged gubernatorial bids, a challenge Weingart said Guadagno faces as well.
“If you look at what happened yesterday, whether the Democratic candidate closely allied with an extremely popular Democratic president couldn’t win, versus here where you have a lieutenant governor strongly allied with a very unpopular governor, it would take some serious acrobatics to flip that around to her advantage,” he said.
For the Democrats, the calculation for the next year might change, but not by much.
“Our campaign will continue to do what it has been doing -- talking to one voter at a time, fighting for a fairer economy and a progressive agenda that puts our state and our families first,” said Derek Roseman, a campaign spokesperson for Phil Murphy, a key candidate for the Democratic primary nomination for governor. “Last night showed New Jersey is a deep blue state that believes in equality and inclusion, and Phil will continue to fight for those values every single day."
A former U.S. Ambassador to Germany and Goldman Sachs executive with deep pockets, Murphy remains the frontrunner in the race for the party’s gubernatorial nomination, having early on locked up endorsements in key parts of the state. But he’s also a firm Clinton supporter, having raised money for the secretary of state in the past.
The election’s outcome — allowing a less experienced underdog with a populist message to beat out the odds-on favorite — could be seen as a rebuke of the establishment brand of politics that Clinton was perceived to represent. That could stand to embolden Murphy’s potential challengers, such as Assemblyman John Wisniewski, who has not officially declared his candidacy but who launched an exploratory committee earlier this month and is expected to announce a final decision in the coming weeks.
“I think these national election results show us one thing: that Americans are completely fed up with an establishment that has rigged the system against the working class,” Wisniewski told NJ Spotlight. “We need to recognize now that what the people want is for us to prioritize our priorities that have up to this point in time alienated many working class Americans.”
A former New Jersey Democratic State Committee chairman, Wisniewski became the only elected official in the state to endorse Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders in his breakaway campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination earlier this year and served as the campaign’s New Jersey chairman. He said the results of the election should serve as a “wake-up call to the insiders and the establishment players who are rushing to judgment to nominate a Wall Street executive before a single vote is cast, before a single convention has occurred.”
“The next governor has to understand in their core that we need an economy that works for everybody, not just the 1 percent. Somebody with experience, not only with the Legislature, but in dealing with the challenges that working class people face every day. Someone with New Jersey values,” he said.
There also might be some domino effect among Republicans, as Christie’s possible position in a Trump administration could open up advancement opportunities for New Jerseyans. For instance, junior U.S. Rep. Tom MacArthur, who sits on the House Armed Forces Committee might be open to a defense-related post, or Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick (R-Union), who has also been touted as a possible gubernatorial contender but is unlikely to run next year, may find a Washington job to his liking.
The list goes on, they say, because the only New Jersey positions to be open in the foreseeable future are governor and lieutenant governor. “I think there’s any number of people who potentially look at (a national) opportunity and say, they’re (currently) serving in what is certain to be the minority until the next redistricting,” the Republican strategist said.
“No Republicans believe there is any real opportunity to take control back of the Senate or Assembly without a redistricting effort.”