The ouster of the chief executive officer of United Continental Holdings Inc. could hobble the presidential campaign of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, already struggling for relevance amid earlier corruption investigations of his allies.
Jeff Smisek, 61, was replaced Tuesday after an internal probe into the airline’s ties to David Samson, a former chairman of the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey and Christie appointee. The ouster was among the most tangible fallout from persistent allegations that the governor’s allies at the agency used it to further his political fortunes.
The Republican governor hasn’t been accused of wrongdoing. Months of investigations into whether the airline revived a money-losing flight to curry Samson’s favor, and into the creation of traffic jams in a town whose mayor failed to endorse Christie, have clung to his campaign.
“It’s an easy volley in a debate,” said Jennifer Duffy, a senior editor of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, which provides analysis of national elections from Washington. “Past donors and big-money supporters could start sitting on their checkbooks. It doesn’t take a whole lot to make that happen.”
An e-mail request to the governor’s office seeking comment on Smisek’s ouster wasn’t immediately returned. Samantha Smith, a spokeswoman for Christie’s campaign, said the idea that the ouster had anything to do with Christie is unfair.
“This is not going to impact the campaign because it has nothing to do with Governor Christie,” she said.
The replacement of such a high-ranking company official will harm Christie’s campaign, said New Jersey Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, a Teaneck Democrat who is co-chairwoman of a panel reviewing the bridge delays.
“It’s definitely in the public consciousness,” she said. “It’s his top people at the Port Authority who’ve been implicated and who are obviously at the center.”
Christie and Samson forged their relationship more than a decade ago as prosecutors targeted by a street gang. When Christie was elected governor in 2009, Samson was transition leader before his appointment as chairman of the Port Authority, which controls the region’s major airports, bridges and tunnels.
Samson is a central figure in scandals weighing on Christie’s White House run. Paul Fishman, the U.S. attorney in Newark, is examining Samson’s role in the plot to block traffic at the George Washington Bridge in 2013, before he ran for president.
Also under scrutiny are Samson’s legal work and the United flights between New Jersey and South Carolina, where his wife has a home. The route was revived after he joined the agency, and after a private dinner with Smisek. United ended the trip days after Samson left the Port Authority in March 2014.
The drumbeat of suspicion has weighed on his patron. The RealClearPolitics average of national polls conducted since Aug. 13 has Christie trailing nine other Republicans for the party’s nomination with just 2.8 percent support. In New Jersey, he registered just 30 percent approval in the most-recent PublicMind poll by Fairleigh Dickinson University, less than half of where his ratings stood in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy in early 2013.
Christie’s diminished status in the presidential race is likely to hurt his standing at home, said Julian E. Zelizer, who teaches history and public affairs at Princeton University in New Jersey.
Zelizer said the latest controversy at the Port Authority will contribute to the perception of Christie as tarred by scandal, lessening his national prospects.
“Any story that touches on the problems at the Port Authority is bad for Christie,” he said. “It raises questions for voters. People wonder what’s coming next. Some of his national image was about being able to work with Democrats, but this makes him look tough and ruthlessly partisan.”
Duffy said the Smisek matter alone may not sink Christie with voters, though a drop in donations may be an immediate and serious concern.
“He’s still a step removed,” she said in an interview. “His fingerprints are going to have to be on something.”