They say that misery loves company, and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) may soon have a friend who can sympathize with seeing a 2016 presidential campaign threatened by a tawdry political scandal.
On Wednesday, more than 27,000 emails were released from a now closed investigation into alleged illegal activity by Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's (R) 2010 election campaign. Though Walker himself was never charged with anything, the new documents for the first time tie him directly to his staff's shady campaign dealings, an embarrassing blow that could hinder his re-election bid this year and dampen his appeal as an establishment alternative come 2016.
A quick recap on how we got here.
Back in 2010, when Walker was still the Milwaukee County executive, his staff established a secret wireless network in the county office to coordinate strategy with his political campaign. Because such coordination is illegal in Wisconsin when done on the taxpayers' dime, a probe into the effort resulted in convictions for six of Walker's former aides and allies, including his former deputy chief of staff, Kelly Rindfleisch, who pleaded guilty in 2012 to a felony for her role.
Walker, meanwhile, came through unscathed — until now, that is.
According to the newly released emails, the investigation into the Walker campaign's misconduct widened one day before the 2012 election, with raids targeting Walker's campaign office, the Milwaukee County executive office, and the homes of some Walker staffers. As for that secret wireless router, the emails provide the first direct indication that Walker knew about it.
From the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:
"Consider yourself now in the 'inner circle,'" Walker's administration director, Cynthia Archer, wrote to Walker aide Kelly Rindfleisch just after the two exchanged a test message.
"I use this private account quite a bit to communicate with SKW and Nardelli. You should be sure you check it throughout the day," she wrote, referring to Walker by his initials and to Walker's chief of staff, Tom Nardelli. [Milwaukee Journal Sentinel]
Now, the emails do not prove that Walker actually used the secret network while on the county clock. And many of the details in the unsealed emails have been known for some time. Still, the negative headlines they're generating — and the subsequent investigative reports they're bound to spawn — are a stain on the resume of someone many believed to be the GOP establishment's next best hope after Bridgegate tarnished Christie's once-glorious political career.
Christie's downfall is an apt parallel.
Though Christie hasn't been tied directly to the politically motivated traffic scandal, his aides and appointees have. That leaves just two conclusions to draw about Christie himself: Either he's lying or he surrounded himself with devious incompetents over whom he had little control. Neither interpretation reflects favorably on a chief executive's character.
So while Christie is innocent (so far) of any personal wrongdoing, his popularity has taken a massive hit.
That's the same problem now facing Walker. The governor could still be found guilty in the court of public opinion of poor judgment for hiring law-skirting staffers. Indeed, the Democratic National Committee and local Democratic operatives are now lumping the two governors together under one big umbrella of shame.
"This wasn't the work of a few rogue staffers," Michael Czin, a DNC spokesman, said in a statement, "this was a coordinated effort that goes right to the top."
"Just like in New Jersey, top aides used taxpayer resources to push a political agenda," he added. "And just like Chris Christie, Scott Walker has a lot of questions to answer."
The emails support that claim, to a certain extent. One correspondence shows that Walker instructed a top aide to coordinate a daily conference call between county and campaign staff. Again, though that doesn't implicate Walker in any illegal activity, it suggests he might have encouraged it in his underlings.
Walker's problems don't end there, either. As the Huffington Post noted, the emails also revealed that Walker once wanted to fire a doctor because she used to be a thong model, a tale that would be perfect fodder for Democrats who want to trot out their effective "War on Women" message. And the emails also contained a racist, homophobic chain message about a fictional nightmare. (Punch line: "I can handle being a black, disabled, one-armed, drug-addicted, Jewish, homosexual... but please, Oh dear God, don't tell me I'm a Democrat!")
Meanwhile, Walker's recall campaign committee — the governor defeated an attempt to remove him from office in 2012, which is what earned him the national spotlight to begin with — is believed to be the subject of a second, ongoing investigation. Depending on what that investigation finds, Walker could be in for yet another round of awful coverage.
The symmetry between Walker and Christie's tales is remarkable. Both involve a prominent GOP governor with presumed White House ambitions allegedly using his office for underhanded political machinations. And in both cases, the governor claimed innocence and ignorance of his staff's misdeeds.
That excuse didn't work for Christie, and there's no reason to believe it will work any better for Walker.