By the end of last year, the Justice Department was prepared to indict Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell and his wife for their connection to the “gifts” scandal: The allegedly inappropriate help they gave dietary supplement maker Star Scientific after receiving more than $165,000 in gifts from CEO Jonnie Williams.
It didn’t happen. Not because the case fell apart—it’s clear that the McDonnell’s received huge sums from Williams—but because of the election; McDonnell was leaving office and the governor’s mansion was changing hands. His lawyers argued that, if prosecutors were going to file charges, then they should wait until after McDonnell left office, to ensure a smooth transition of power.
His successor, Democrat Terry McAuliffe, was sworn in earlier this week, and we’re now at the point where McDonnell is open to federal charges. And according to the Washington Post, the Justice Department should make an announcement by next month. In the meantime, whether or not he faces charges, it’s obvious that McDonnell’s political career is over. He’s been abandoned by the Virginia GOP, no less because his scandal helped sink Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli in the gubernatorial election, and led—in some degree—to Democrats winning the full slate of statewide offices for the first time since 1969.
One thing is worth noting about McDonnell: While his popularity suffered as a result of the “gifts” scandal, Virginia voters never turned against him decisively. Polls before the election had him at 50 percent approval, and a final internal poll placed his job approval rating at 62 percent. Even with his clear corruption, voters still liked McDonnell and his tenure.
We should keep this in mind as we evaluate the scandal that has engulfed the other Republican golden boy from 2009—New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. GOP defenders of the governor have noted the extent to which “Bridgegate” has yet to touch his popularity with the state’s voters, as if this were a rebuttal to claims that the scandal could destroy his political future. It isn’t.
What matters to Christie’s chances are the facts of the investigation. If there’s proof that Christie was involved the lane closures or the cover-up, then his popularity doesn’t matter—he’s finished as a potential presidential candidate, and possibly as a governor. In which case, he’ll join McDonnell as another conservative star, turned has been.