How Chris Christie is trying to turn bridge-gate into a partisan scrum. And how it’s working.

January 21

Over the weekend, MSNBC's Steve Kornacki ran an interview with Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer (D) in which she alleged the administration of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) had threatened to withhold Hurricane Sandy relief money unless she agreed to back a development project he favored.

Christie's office not only denied Zimmer's allegations -- and CNN documented the fact that her story had changed somewhat from an interview last week -- but also took the time to blast the network on which they first ran. The statement from Christie's office is lengthy (you can read the whole thing) but  here are the key bits:

"MSNBC is a partisan network that has been openly hostile to Governor Christie and almost gleeful in their efforts attacking him, even taking the unprecedented step of producing and airing a nearly three-minute attack ad against him this week."

"MSNBC has dedicated nearly twice as much coverage to Governor Christie over the last week and a half than CNN, and three times as much as Fox News."

What Christie is up to is somewhat obvious but also has the potential to be quite effective. Start with this basic premise: The whole hullabaloo over the traffic closures in Fort Lee made major donors -- Christie's most obvious "base" in the party -- skittish and  amounted to another strike against him among grass-roots conservatives already skeptical of the whole being-nice-to-President-Obama thing.

How do you solve (or at least mitigate) that problem if you are Christie and want to run for president in 2016? Find a common political enemy of course! Done and done.

Republicans -- from major donors to the conservative base -- are deeply skeptical of MSNBC, believing it represents an offshoot of the Democratic party. (Full disclosure: I am under contract with MSNBC and occasionally guest-host for Chuck Todd and Andrea Mitchell. Also, I have many leather-bound books and my apartment smells of rich mahogany.)  What better way to turn bridge-gate from an example of, at best, bad judgment in senior staff and out-of-the-loop-ism from the governor himself than to cast the story as nothing more than a partisan witch hunt?

Assuming nothing more comes out -- either in Fort Lee or Hoboken -- that directly implicates Christie (and that's a big "if"), it's a strategy that just might succeed. It's not all that hard to imagine Christie in New Hampshire in 2015 (does he skip Iowa? That's another post), dropping a line like this to huge applause: "I know what it's like to be a target of national Democrats. I know what it's like to be attacked in the court of public opinion. And I've stared them all down -- and won."

As we have said from the start of bridge-gate -- lo those 13 days ago -- Democrats in New Jersey (and nationally) need to be careful not to overplay their hand on the allegations. They have to keep their personal feelings about Christie -- they loathe him -- separate from how they act publicly.  Anything they do that has the whiff of partisanship, Christie and his able political team will seize on as a way to paint this controversy as a partisan battle rather than an investigation into wrongdoing in his inner circle. Christie is already moving in that direction. And there's more where that came from.

Fixbits: 

Jim Messina has signed on as an adviser to Democrat Charlie Crist's campaign for governor of Florida.

Rep. James Lankford (R-Okla.) will run for the seat of retiring Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.). Conservative groups aren't happy.

Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) and state Attorney General Scott Pruitt (R) won't run for Coburn's seat.

Texas state Sen. Wendy Davis (D) acknowledged errors in the life story she's touted.

Christie's unfavorable rating nationally has doubled from a year ago, according to a new poll.

Mitt Romney defended Christie's handling of the Fort Lee traffic scandal.

Former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton is headed to Florida next month.

Sarah Palin called on President Obama to stop "playing the race card."

Must-reads: 

"Chris Christie’s 1994 ad was too tough (and inaccurate) for Jersey" - David A. Fahrenthold, Washington Post

"'Mitt’ documentary shows Romney’s many sides" -- Dan Balz, Washington Post

"Going the distance" -- David Remnick, New Yorker

"Christie speaks, and looks for lessons" -- Matt Bai, Yahoo News

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Zachary A. Goldfarb | January 19