Only last week, it seemed as if scandal-dogged GOP Govs. Chris Christie of New Jersey and Scott Walker of Wisconsin might be back in the 2016 game. At Mitt Romney’s Utah summit, Christie told big donors that his troubles are “over, it’s done with and I’m moving on.” Walker’s supporters crowed that in May, a judge put an end to the second John Doe probe he’s faced, this one into illegal coordination between his anti-recall campaign and outside conservative groups like Club for Growth.
Then came Thursday, when shoes dropped for both men. An Esquire report alleged that U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman has close Christie confidants talking about all the New Jersey scandals, not just Bridgegate, and he may be close to indictments. The same day a Wisconsin judge released documents showing that John Doe prosecutors believed Walker was at the center of a “criminal scheme” – two words no governor wants to see attached to his name.
It’s important to note that the shocking documents were released because a judge found no grounds to continue the probe. Walker may not face any further legal trouble here. But his political trouble keeps getting worse. The most stunning piece of evidence was an email from Walker himself to Karl Rove, boasting about his political operation, which seems to indicate some effort to coordinate with outside groups like Rove’s American Crossroads – though in the end, Rove did not wind up getting involved with the Wisconsin races.
An aside: Am I the only one who thinks someone stupid enough to send Karl Rove a personal email that at least smacks of an effort at illegal campaign coordination is too stupid to be president – and maybe even to remain as governor? I thought that when Walker was pranked by a faux David Koch, too, but apparently Wisconsin voters are more forgiving. Still, Walker’s in a tough race for reelection this year and he may have to fight hard just to stay in Madison; he sure can’t look ahead to Washington.
At any rate, the continuing flow of bad news out of New Jersey and Wisconsin has to terrify GOP donors and the rumored “establishment.” It’s increasingly unlikely that either governor can emerge as a “pragmatic,” pro-business 2016 alternative to Tea Party zealots like Sens. Ted Cruz and Rand Paul. This ups the pressure on former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush to run – and may even swell the ranks of Republicans reassuring two-time loser Mitt Romney that the third time’s the charm.
Don’t laugh: Romney is the runaway front-runner in a New Hampshire primary poll released Thursday night, crushing Christie and Paul and the rest of the field. OK, it’s one of Romney’s many “home states,” but that’s got to have Romney admirers thinking “what if?” The Romney-convened summit that hosted Christie last week also featured lots of wistful thinking about what a President Romney might be doing now – as well as what President Romney could do in 2017.
“It was intended to be a passing of the torch to the Republican Party’s would-be saviors,” the Washington Post’s Phillip Rucker wrote Monday. Instead, it “became a Romney revival.” My MSNBC colleague Joe Scarborough reportedly urged the 300 guests to begin a movement to “draft Romney.” And leading Romney fundraiser Harold Hamm told Rucker, “Everybody realizes we’re devoid of leadership in D.C. Everybody would encourage him to consider it again.”
Meanwhile on Monday Jeb Bush heads to Cincinnati to headline a Republican National Committee fundraising dinner, a visit to a crucial swing state his brother carried in 2004 that’s been lost to Republicans ever since. Bush allies have been pushing back hard on the conventional wisdom – espoused by me, too – that the former governor's presidential hopes were dimmed by Eric Cantor’s surprise defeat, in a campaign where immigration became a huge issue. Still, a man who describes some illegal immigration as “an act of love” is inarguably out of step with the GOP primary base, Cantor’s loss aside.
Some Republicans have floated Bush as a smart choice for vice president, especially if the nominee is a green Tea Partyer from a Red State. “Jeb could be a safe choice for anybody,” Stuart Spencer, who helped push Ronald Reagan to pick Bush’s father for V.P., told the National Journal. “He has name ID, a Spanish background, [is] a former governor, and he’s conservative.” That seems crazy to me – Bush already played a kind of second fiddle to his younger brother; I can’t imagine him doing it again for, say, Ted Cruz -- but it’s a sign of how hard some in the GOP want to shoehorn Bush onto a national ticket.
Of course, Christie’s backers continue to argue their guy will survive his allies’ legal troubles. On Friday he spoke to Ralph Reed’s Faith and Freedom conference. Meanwhile, Scott Walker appeared on Fox and Friends Friday morning to claim he’s out of legal hot water. "Many in the national media, and even some here in Wisconsin, are looking at this thing backwards," Walker said. "This is a case that has been resolved.”
Asked if his troubles were comparable to Christie’s, Walker said yes. "There is no doubt that the media jumps on this, some on the left spin this. We get our detractors out there trying to claim there is more than there is." But big GOP donors can’t be reassured by either governor. The party’s hopes now rest with two flawed candidates, one of whom insists he won’t run again, while Bush only equivocates. Reporters who are busy inventing rivals for Hillary Clinton in 2016 ought to put their imagination into coming up with presidential candidates for a party that truly needs them.