Not many Republicans bother to campaign for statewide office in Oakland, a small northern New Jersey borough that voted for Mitt Romney in 2012 and usually is considered safe GOP territory.
But the town’s Democratic mayor, Linda Schwager, received an unexpected phone call last fall from a political ally of Gov. Chris Christie. The Republican assemblyman pressed Ms. Schwager to endorse the governor’s re-election bid, saying a local Democratic Party leader said he wouldn’t mind if she defected from Sen. Barbara Buono, Mr. Christie’s Democratic challenger.
“He said, ‘Don’t worry about it; they don’t really like Barbara anyway,’” Ms. Schwager said in an interview this week.
It turned out the lawmaker’s claim didn’t check out, Ms. Schwager said. She declined to back Mr. Christie — but the call seeking a Democratic mayor’s endorsement wasn’t unusual.
Indeed, the bridge scandal facing Mr. Christie seems to underscore just how intent the Republican governor and his aides were on rounding up Democratic supporters as part of a major show of bipartisanship ahead of a potential 2016 presidential bid.
“One by one, Democratic mayors were getting these calls,” Ms. Schwager said.
Mr. Christie’s push for Democratic supporters became an issue last week after emails revealed that a top aide ordered traffic problems in Fort Lee, seemingly in response to Democratic Mayor Mark Sokolich’s decision not to endorse the governor.
Armed with subpoena power and the help of a well-known former federal prosecutor, a state legislative committee is investigating the Christie administration’s role in tying up traffic for days at the George Washington Bridge last year.
Mr. Christie moved swiftly to try to contain the controversy. He declared that he knew nothing of the idea, fired his deputy chief of staff, ousted a longtime political aide, and apologized in person to Fort Lee officials and residents.
“What has happened does not reflect well on us or our state,” Mr. Christie said in his State of the State speech this week.
“Even though the competition among the states is fierce, no state has shown more bipartisan cooperation over the last four years than New Jersey,” he said.
As Mr. Christie portrays himself as a bipartisan leader, The Washington Times reached out to Democratic municipal officials across the state, several of whom were courted by the Christie campaign.
None of these officials described suffering any retribution for declining to endorse the governor, but interviews suggest a concentrated effort by Mr. Christie’s political operation to get Democrats to defect during his re-election bid. No endorsement was too small.
By bagging Democratic endorsements even in small towns such as Dover and Palmyra, the governor’s political team tried to give credence to the emerging national narrative of Mr. Christie as a tough but bipartisan leader who could attract support beyond the Republican base. It’s an image that has vaulted him into the top tier of likely Republican White House candidates.