TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — Gov. Chris Christie had hoped the New Jersey primaries Tuesday would be the day home state voters endorsed his Republican presidential candidacy.
Instead, Christie is at a crossroads — empowered by his early support of presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump while struggling to earn approval at home as the state faces financial crises and the continuing George Washington Bridge scandal.
Christie's term ends in 2018, but with that brings the possibility of moving on to an administration post under Trump if the billionaire businessman is successful in November. At the same time, Christie faces hurdles that show no sign of going away soon in New Jersey, where a recent Fairleigh Dickinson poll showed just 26 percent approve of the job he's doing. The poll surveyed 702 registered voters and had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.7 percentage points.
Experts say the governor's path lies with Trump's success and a possible slot as vice president or attorney general.
"Popularity in New Jersey is really no longer a relevant factor to his political future," said Monmouth University Polling Institute director Patrick Murray. "Right now, he's all in with Donald Trump."
Christie is chairman of Trump's White House transition team, in charge of recommending staff and about 4,000 agency positions if Trump wins the presidency. Christie also benefited from a Trump fundraiser that went to pay Christie's presidential campaign debt as well as a separate event to pay down the state GOP's debt, stemming from legal fees in the lane-closing scandal.
Two former Christie allies have pleaded not guilty to charges they conspired to shut down lanes of the bridge for political retaliation and another has pleaded guilty. An request by media organizations, including The Associated Press, to have a list released of unindicted co-conspirators in the scheme will be heard by a federal appeals court Monday.
Christie also faces a more than $600 million budget deficit this year because of lower revenues than his administration projected. He is plugging the hole by dipping into the state's surplus and forgoing spending on already-authorized items. Meanwhile, the borrowing authority of the state's fund for transportation spending is set to elapse at the end of the month.
Christie says that kind of pressure has been part of his job since he entered office. His treasurer has a plan for the deficit and he says he will tackle transportation funding with the Democrat-led Legislature now that he has signed a rescue package for cash-strapped Atlantic City.
"I feel pressure every day in this job to get something done," Christie said recently. "And I felt that way from the minute I walked in, and I will feel it until the minute I walk out."
Democrats constantly criticize the governor over his handling of the state's nearly $34 billion budget and are quick to link the lane-closure scandal to Christie, even though he has not been charged and was cleared of any involvement by a review ordered by his administration. But they're also inviting Christie to cut deals over the biggest issues in the state, including transportation funding.
"I don't know what the outcome of Bridgegate is going to be," said Democratic Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, a frequent Christie critic who recently took him to task for not stopping to talk to her while they rode on the same train. "I don't know how that ultimately will be decided but he has a chance, and a very limited window, to establish his legacy by helping us solve these really serious problems that have evolved over the last seven years."
Despite the polls and the slow drip of the bridge case, Christie is still an influential, respected figure among New Jersey Republicans. They point to his refusing to agree to Democratic proposals to raise taxes on the wealthy and his tackling the public pension, which had been underfunded for years.
"In New Jersey, unless you're tough and unless you're willing to take tough stands in this state, nothing gets done," said Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick. "Here's a governor who came to Trenton and did something. When you do something, unfortunately, you make someone mad."