The Republican Party spent years trying to recruit New Jersey’s U.S. attorney, Chris Christie, to run for office. The party had a consistent record of failure, despite the state Democrats' reputation as old-school machine hacks and crooks. So when Christie finally entered a race this year -- against unpopular incumbent Gov. Jon Corzine -- things looked good for the GOP. Republicans couldn’t lose forever, after all, and who better to end the streak than a federal prosecutor, an apolitical, law-and-order type?
It didn’t take much for Christie to jump to a big lead over Corzine, but events have conspired to take the sheen off of the challenger. An onslaught of negative ads from Corzine charged the GOP’s supposed white knight with using his clout as a federal prosecutor to dodge punishment for various infractions. As one spot put it, “One set of rules for himself, another for everyone else.” (This was the infamous ad in which Corzine also not-too-subtly mocked Christie’s weight.)
The Corzine campaign seems to have hit on the perfect tactic here. Christie’s whole appeal rested on the idea that he wasn’t just another operator. And though Corzine is too widely disliked to attract the voters he’s scared away from Christie, there’s a third-party candidate, former moderate Republican Chris Daggett, positioned to scoop them up.
So things are looking up for the embattled governor. In recent weeks, as Corzine’s polling numbers have stayed at their apparent ceiling in the low 40s, Christie’s have sunk to the incumbent's level. Meanwhile, Daggett has jumped to around 15 percent. A tie in the polls is widely thought to mean an advantage on election day for Corzine; typically, Democrats are better at getting out the vote in New Jersey.
But, as Chairman Mao (via John McCain) liked to say, it’s always darkest before it’s totally black. On Tuesday, the New York Times broke a story that’s so perfect for Corzine’s line of attack on Christie, you’d think the governor wrote it himself.
Apparently, Christie gave a loan of $46,000 to his friend, neighbor and top aide, Michele Brown. This news had already emerged, to some embarrassment to the candidate, who hadn’t reported it earlier. The new problem? Although Christie said that Brown had done nothing to assist his campaign, there are reasons to suspect otherwise.
When the Corzine campaign sought potentially embarrassing Freedom of Information records from Christie’s office, Brown took over the request from the person who normally handles them. The Justice Department ultimately had to tell the office to remove her from the position because of the conflict of interest.
It also appears that Brown attempted to rush some high-profile arrests, so that they would occur before Christie resigned and he could take credit.
This story almost precisely encapsulates the state of the campaign. As it happens, the biggest scandal suffered by incumbent Corzine during his first term also had to do with a personal loan and a resulting potential conflict of interest. But “everybody does it” hardly sounds good coming from a candidate whose pitch is, “I’ll clean up Trenton.”