Over the last few days, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) has been hit again with criticism over the spending of Hurricane Sandy relief funds on tourism ads starring himself and his family. The Asbury Park Press reported this weekend that a state agency, headed by a close Christie aide, had bypassed a lower bidder to award the $2 million contract to a politically connected public affairs firm.
Close observers of the New Jersey political scene are skeptical, however, that the renewed criticism will do any real damage to Christie's reelection bid.
"It opened him up to fodder for criticism," Montclair State University political science professor Brigid Harrison told The Huffington Post. "It is not a game-changer."
The Asbury Park Press report brought a critical editorial Tuesday from one of New Jersey's leading newspapers, The Star-Ledger, and sharp words from Democratic gubernatorial nominee Barbara Buono.
But John Weingart, associate director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University, said that with Christie's 30 percentage point lead over Buono, many voters have made up their minds and any criticism will bounce off the incumbent.
Harrison suggested that two issues in particular will keep the tourism ad criticism from sticking to Christie. The first, she said, is that residents may see the ad as benefiting the Jersey Shore's leading industry in the wake of the state's largest natural disaster. The second is the complexity of the story, which covers the nature of the funds, the process used to award the contract and the involvement of a top Christie aide.
The contract was awarded by a state panel headed by Michele Brown, CEO of the state Economic Development Authority. Brown was earlier criticized for accepting a loan from Christie when she worked for him in the U.S. attorney's office. Before taking over the EDA, she was the governor's patronage chief.
"The mechanics of it are problematic," Harrison said. "Getting that complicated message out of Sandy money being used for self-promotion is a complicated path for voters to follow."
On the other hand, Harrison said some voters may be upset at Christie's using relief funds on the self-starring ad campaign while he's seeking a second term. The tourist ads are being seen across the Northeast and as far south as Virginia. That area is home to many potential Jersey Shore visitors, she noted, but it also includes states important to the 2016 presidential map.
Christie is not the first New Jersey governor to star in tourism ads, a practice that famously includes then-Gov. Tom Kean (R) strolling along the Shore in the 1980s. Gov. Christine Todd Whitman (R) walked the shoreline in the 1990s, and Govs. Donald DiFrancesco (R) and Jim McGreevey (D) starred with their wives in ads over the last decade.
Other states have adopted the same practice. Then-California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) starred in tourism commercials with first lady Maria Shriver. New York first lady Libby Pataki appeared on posters promoting the state's agriculture industry when her husband, Republican George Pataki, was governor.
Weingart said Garden State voters enjoy their politicians basking in the limelight.
"People in New Jersey have state pride," he said. "They were happy when [then-Sen.] Bill Bradley was a star. They are happy with Chris Christie and Cory Booker being stars."
At the same time, Harrison did question whether the ads will be effective this year.
"There is no doubt that Governor Christie is New Jersey's most recognizable commodity," she said. "I don't know if watching the Christies frolicking on the beach will get people to come to the shore."