They were considered the elite, the leaders of the Republican Party. The adults in the room. The guys moneymen could back. Todd Akin might put his foot in his mouth about rape, Rand Paul might be put on defense about comments about the constitutionality of the Civil Rights Act, but these guys – they were conservative and could be trusted at a podium in front of reporters.
But now, former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie find themselves at the bottom of the barrel, fending off indictments, in McDonnell's case, and Democrats accusations of abuse of power and bullying, in Christie's.
To be clear, McDonnell has fallen the farthest. From potential 2016 presidential candidate and certainly considered 2012 vice presidential candidate, to former governor accused by law enforcement of illegally accepting gifts from a prominent businessman in exchange for favorable treatment. It may well be that he escapes prosecution, but however the legal battle is resolved, his ethics remain trashed.
Christie will likely endure Bridgegate – the scandal that resulted in a two-hour press conference where he denied knowledge of one of his top political aides instructing his Port Authority appointees to create a traffic snarl by the George Washington Bridge as a form of political retribution against a Democratic mayor – but he's lost real ground among Democratic and independent voters as a result.
"In 2009, Christie and McDonnell were the poster boys for the GOP recovery," says Ford O'Connell, a Republican political strategist who worked on the 2008 McCain-Palin presidential campaign. "Now both men are basically considered politically radioactive. But Christie can still rid himself from the stench of scandal, but Bob McDonnell's political career is finished."
Democrats, too, have so far been relentless when it comes to pounding Christie about the scandal, which they assert is part of a pattern of bullying behavior. And while some analysts say Democrats are in danger of overplaying their hand, O'Connell says they know exactly what they are doing, as Christie recently took over as chairman of the Republican Governors Association, becoming the default fundraiser-in-chief for GOP chief executives across the country.
"What's tougher for Christie is here ...we have to play defense in 22 state capitals this year and he has to essentially raise $100 million," he says. "Basically it's not just that Democrats want him off the playing field for 2016, they want him off the playing field for 2014."
So far, Christie has maintained the trust he needs to be up to the task though, O'Connell says.
"Right now he is the most trusted Republicans with the GOP donor class and until that changes, he's got to stay in [at the RGA]," he says. "The donors aren't shying away. Some of the other people who are shying away are doing so because of their own 2016 aspirations."