If Chris Christie wants to get the GOP’s nomination for president in 2016, his hopes rest largely in one key state: New Hampshire. That’s because the other early voting states are not exactly friendly to Christie’s brand of center-right politics. Iowa, which holds its 2016 caucuses before New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary, is a stronghold for Christian-right conservatives, and the New Jersey governor isn’t likely to do well there. Ditto South Carolina, where far-right Republicans hold sway. But New Hampshire, which has its share of moderate and centrist Republicans likely to support a Christie-style candidate, and which allows independents to cast ballots in party primaries, might be considered friendly territory for Christie.
Until recently, it appeared that Christie had an ace-in-the-hole in New Hampshire: a key aide, who was part of Christie’s 2013 reelection team, was hired late last year as executive director of the New Hampshire GOP.
Unfortunately for Christie, that aide, Matt Mowers, has been ensnared by the lane-closing scandal at the George Washington Bridge. In January, Mowers received a subpoena from the New Jersey state legislative joint committee looking into Bridgegate, and it’s getting attention in New Hampshire. The reason why Mowers is involved is because he was in charge of Christie’s political operations in eight New Jersey counties in 2013, territory that included Fort Lee, the western terminus for the George Washington Bridge. And, famously, it was Fort Lee’s mayor, Mark Sokolich, a Democrat, who was pressured to endorse Christie for reelection last year. When Sokolich refused, it allegedly led Christie’s deputy chief of staff, Bridget Anne Kelly, and a Port Authority official, David Wildstein, to retaliate by orchestrating “some traffic problems in Fort Lee.”
And it was Mowers who met with Sokolich repeatedly during the 2013 campaign to seek the mayor’s endorsement. Lately, Sokolich—who’s met with the US attorney’s office in Newark to discuss the matter—has been speaking out. According to the Bergen Record, Mowers persistently tried to persuade him to back Christie:
On at least three occasions, Sokolich said that Mowers brought up the subject of Sokolich’s possible endorsement. “He would say, ‘What are your thoughts?’” Sokolich said of Mowers. “He would say, ‘What do you think?’ Or he would say, “Is this something you would consider?’” The mayor added: “Some people might interpret that as a direct request. I don’t. I always viewed it as a gradual courting. I always viewed it as a way to ask so that there was always plausible deniability.”
Similarly, Sokolich told the Newark Star-Ledger that Mowers “danced around the issue” and that “plausible deniability” was part of Mowers’ approach:
“It was always a roundabout review of everyone jumping ship—Democrats jumping to their side of the fence—and he would say, ‘How do you feel about that?'" Sokolich said. “I don’t think they wanted it to be a direct request, because then they would have plausible deniability that they asked for my endorsement and didn’t get it.”
A recent New York Times story on Christie’s reelection team noted that Mowers worked closely with Stepien:
Mr. Stepien’s office divided the state into three areas—north, south and central—with staff members in charge of reaching out to mayors. For example, Matt Mowers, who sought the endorsement of Mayor Mark Sokolich of Fort Lee, a Democrat, worked in the north. They kept track of the outreach on the spreadsheets, which they updated almost each night to note phone calls made and meetings scheduled.
So far, it appears that Mowers—unlike Kelly and Stepien—is cooperating with the investigators, and he’s turned over relevant documents, according to the Daily Record, a Morris County, New Jersey, paper:
[A] source said a fifth individual subpoenaed in the first round, Republican campaign director Matt Mowers, turned over documents Wednesday morning. Mowers is now the executive director of the New Hampshire Republican State Committee. Mowers’ attorney, Craig Carpenito, did not immediately return a call seeking comment.
Christie Watch left messages for both Mowers and Carpenito, the lawyer, but neither one returned calls.
Up in New Hampshire, though, Republicans and Democrats are trading shots about Mowers’ involvement. Jennifer Horn, chairwoman of the New Hampshire GOP, stoutly defended Mowers, who, after all, is so far free of any accusations. She said:
“Matt is an extremely talented worker and a valued member of our team. He has not been accused of any wrongdoing and there is zero indication that he is in any way connected to the decision to close the bridge lanes.”
But the Democrats in New Hampshire are trying to make hay about Mowers’ role in Christie’s reelection. After the subpoenas were issued in January, Ray Buckley, the New Hampshire Democratic party chairman, said:
“The events surrounding the Christie administration closing lanes for political retribution are a troubling breach of the public's trust. Matt Mowers spent years working directly under now-disgraced aides of Chris Christie, and we are all left to wonder what dirty tricks they taught him and what plans he has to use them in New Hampshire. We hope Mr. Mowers and his former colleagues who have been subpoenaed cooperate fully with all investigations and fully assist investigators find out the truth about Bridgegate.”
Another NH Democratic party release raised questions for Mowers:
Close to a week after news broke about top Christie aide’s scheme to block access to the George Washington Bridge and put people’s safety at risk for political revenge, Granite Staters are still seeking answers. When did Mowers hear about the plan to close lanes on the George Washington Bridge to punish Fort Lee, and was he involved in concocting it? What contact, if any, did Mowers have with employees of the Port Authority, and did others within the Christie campaign have contact with Port Authority employees? And when was the last time Mowers talked to Bridget Kelly and Bill Stepien, his two former bosses who have been forced to resign, and did they discuss the bridge scandal?
The Manchester Union Leader, the state’s rock-ribbed Republican outlet, raised questions of its own about Mowers role:
The New Hampshire Republican Party chairwoman stood by her recently-hired 24-year-old party executive director Monday after he was named as a player in the prologue to the “Bridgegate” scandal plaguing his old boss, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie….New Hampshire GOP chair Horn would not address whether Mowers had approached Sokolich regarding a Christie endorsement. Nor would she say what she knows about his role in the matter.
Does Mowers’ job in New Hampshire give Christie an advantage if and when he decides to seek the presidential nomination? Or, conversely, will Mowers’ small part in Bridgegate hurt Christie among New Hampshire GOP and independent voters? Spokesmen for both the Republican and Democratic parties say that it isn’t unusual for an operative with ties to a specific candidate to take a role with a NH state party organization, if only to gain experience in the Granite State’s primary role. And there’s no telling how long Mowers will serve in that position, given that the state’s primary battle won’t heat up until the end of next year.
Ryan Williams, a former aide to Mitt Romney and now an executive with FP1 Strategies in Washington, is a spokesman for the NH GOP. He says that while several potential candidates, including Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, Texas Senator Ted Cruz, and Kentucky Senator Rand Paul have all been in the state since the start of 2013—and Jindal will be back this month to keynote a NH GOP event—the chief focus of the party is on the 2014 elections. “We’re not in the presidential cycle yet, and in any case the party always remains neutral,” he told Christie Watch. “The party welcomes all candidates.” And he added: “Mowers has done a great job."