By JOHN DiSTASO, News Editor
First published June 4:
CONCORD – New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie will finally break the post-Bridgegate ice with Granite Staters June 20 as he plans to return to New Hampshire for the first time in two years. Is that a good thing or a bad thing for the candidate he’ll be here to help, GOP candidate for governor Walt Havenstein?
According to one longtime political expert, it’s a double-edged sword.
Dean Spiliotes, civics scholar at Southern New Hampshire University, said the Christie visit will bring attention to Havenstein, whose campaign has been fighting to get positive media coverage so far in the race. But at the same time, he pointed out, the retired businessman-turned-politician will be overshadowed by the controversial governor, who clearly has presidential aspirations and is still trying to recover from the controversy stemming from the Bridgegate lane closure scandal last September.
Havenstein’s campaign announced June 4 that Christie will arrive on June 20 for retail campaign stops and a grassroots event in the Manchester area. There will also be a “grassroots fundraiser” that evening in Atkinson, the campaign said.
It will be Christie’s first visit to the state since 2012, when he campaigned here for Mitt Romney and later, for unsuccessful GOP candidate for governor Ovide Lamontagne.
“This is a sign that momentum is building and we are on our way to winning the Governor’s Office in New Hampshire,” Havenstein said.
The Christie visit will also bring more attention to Havenstein’s Tea Party-oriented GOP primary opponent, Andrew Hemingway, as an underdog, non-establishment, “outsider” candidate.
Hemingway campaign advisor Alicia Preston said her first reaction to news of the Christie visit was “it shows that the presidential campaign primary has begun,” the implication being that Christie’s visit will be more about Christie and 2016 than Havenstein and 2014.
Preston said she was not surprised that Christie and the RGA are taking the unusual step of weighing into a Republican primary election, but she said, “I don’t think it is appropriate.”
Spiliotes said, “I’ve spoken to a number of Republicans and there is not one I’ve spoken to who thinks that Havenstein has gotten off to a good start.”
But the situation seems to be improving.
As the New Hampshire Journal reported on May 31, Havenstein has tried to adjust the campaign structure by giving firmer control to his campaign manager, Matt Seaholm, a veteran of the Americans for Prosperity conservative advocacy group. As the head of the AFP in Wisconsin, Seaholm organized defense of Gov. Scott Walker.
Add to that the Christie visit, and, Spiliotes said, “The plus side is that he’s coming and that his events with Havenstein will be covered. It will help Havenstein with basic name recognition and visibility. It will get them some earned media.
“But the down side is that Christie becomes the story,” Spiliotes said. “The meetings with Havenstein will become an afterthought. Everyone will be focused on Christie’s aspirations.”
“It’s potentially high risk with mediocre payoff for Havenstein,” he said.
Christie has been traveling the country appearing before GOP groups of all ideological stripes.
Today, for instance, it was reported that Christie will speak later this month at a conference hosted by the Faith and Freedom Coalition, a conservative group chaired by Ralph Reed.
According to NorthJersey.com, Christie was in Nashville in latle May campaigning with Gov. Bill Haslam and headlining a Tennessee Republican Party fundraiser that brought in more than $700,000. He also helped U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander celebrate a campaign office opening and met with RGA donors during an event in Memphis.
Christie has insisted that Bridgegate is behind him.
But the issue continues in the Garden State. It has recently been reported that his chief of staff has been called to testify before a special New Jersey legislative committee, headed by Democrats, investigating the scandal.
So far, however, there has been no evidence of direct involvement in the political retribution-based lane closures at the George Washington Bridge by Christie himself.
There are also ties to Christie in the NHGOP and in the U.S. Senate campaign of Scott Brown, which have provided Democrats with plenty of fodder. NHGOP executive director Matt Mowers is the former Christie aide who recently testified in Trenton about his discussion about a possible endorsement of Christie with the Democratic Mayor of Fort Lee, N.J., whose community later suffered most from the traffic jams created by the lane closures.
Brown campaign manager Colin Reed served as Christie’s deputy communications director for a year.
All that considered, is Christie going to help Havenstein?
New Hampshire Democratic Party Communications Director Julie McClain said, “Havenstein’s latest move continues the NHGOP’s unfortunate effort to bring Christie’s politics to New Hampshire, which like Christie’s failed economic policy, have no place in our state.”
A Democratic National Committee spokesman told the New Hampshire Journal, “Chris Christie’s second term has been marred by scandal, mismanagement, and a state economy that’s lagging nationally. That’s the type of leadership that Christie brings as he introduces himself to New Hampshire, and that’s the type of leadership that Walt Havenstein apparently wants to emulate. As Christie visits, Granite Staters will finally get to see first-hand the Christie playbook – attacks, false promises, and a disastrous record that hurts the middle class at the expense of a select few.”
Meanwhile, Dante Scala, political science professor at the University of New Hampshire, put it bluntly:
“At this point, Havenstein needs money and publicity, and Christie supplies both, warts and all.”