When a veteran Republican fundraiser dared to question Chris Christie's ambitious, $400,000 goal for a South Florida swing last March, a close ally of the New Jersey governor shot back: "Do you know who this is?"
Christie's swaggering former law partner, Bill Palatucci, insists the fundraising goal was met. But now, the governor's cachet as one of the GOP's most popular headliners hangs in the balance amid revelations that his deputies cooked up a massive traffic jam on the George Washington Bridge to get back at an uncooperative local mayor.
While Christie is still slated to attend three private fundraisers for Florida Gov. Rick Scott's reelection campaign on Saturday, a joint public appearance has been ruled out. It's a sign that that the bridge scandal will hamstring his performance as chairman of the Republican Governors Association. Until the uproar winds down—and there's no sign of that happening anytime soon—the charismatic New Jersey governor is a more effective surrogate behind closed doors.
"Christie's recent foibles take attention away from Gov. Scott, and I wish that was different," said Scott's former campaign manager, Susie Wiles, who doesn't have a formal role in his reelection bid. "It's unfortunate timing."
Just two months ago, the RGA elected Christie to be the party's lead ambassador in 36 statewide races in 2014. Winning a landslide reelection on Democratic turf that same month only increased the demand for Christie to stump on behalf of fellow Republicans, especially in battleground states like Florida, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.
But with New Jersey Democrats launching investigations into the bridge scandal and threatening subpoenas, any public appearance by Christie in a gubernatorial campaign is likely to be dominated by the latest development in Trenton, instead of the Republican nominee's record at home. Democrats eager to knock down a potential presidential contender will make sure of that. While Christie is in Florida, Democratic National Commiteee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz is planning to trail him to fire on-the-ground attacks in her home state. "Christie's bullying tactics have no place in New Jersey or here in Florida. Add your name to our petition and tell Christie to stay in New Jersey," said the Florida Democratic Party in a fundraising appeal.
Basking in the glow of one of the most popular governors in the country isn't what it used to be.
"Temporarily, Christie's image has been damaged, and until this gets cleared up there will be some apprehension about appearing with him," said former Michigan Republican Party Chairman Saul Anuzis. "It doesn't make sense to stand next to him in the middle of this crisis."
Notably, one of the Democratic Party's biggest targets, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, was noncommittal about the impact of the controversy. "Chris is someone I've worked with, a valued colleague. I don't know enough about that situation to know what the impact will be," said Walker, a possible Christie rival in 2016. Four other governors whose reelections are being heavily touted by the RGA issued clearer statements of support for Christie: John Kasich of Ohio, Nikki Haley of South Carolina, Terry Branstad of Iowa, and Susana Martinez of New Mexico.
"I think it's a validation of their belief in his personal integrity and the result of strong personal relationships forged through extensive time together," said Republican strategist Phil Musser, a former RGA executive director. "I have not sensed an iota of cut-and-run from anyone in the gubernatorial ecosystem. Republican governors tend to close ranks around their own, and Christie is widely liked and respected."
With no evidence tying Christie directly to the bridge scandal, he may continue to be a successful rainmaker on behalf of other Republicans even while his public appearances are temporarily curtailed, party insiders say. RGA officials declined to announce the next stops on Christie's fundraising schedule but said the chair typically attends about 50 events in an election year. The organization is expected to raise as much as $100 million this year and recently reported about $45 million in the bank. That's more than twice as much as the National Republican Congressional Committee has on hand facing the midterm elections.
RGA officials say they aren't worried about Christie's fundraising prowess.
"The reaction I've heard from major donors is that he has handled this incident with decisiveness and accepted responsibility, in contrast to what we see out of the White House," said Fred Malek, the RGA's finance chairman.
But some of those same donors are expected to be much more cautious about committing to a Christie presidential bid. Among the likely beneficiaries if Christie is sidelined are other chief executives considering national campaigns, including Walker, Kasich, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.
"Everyone thinks this Christie thing is a real boo-boo," said Al Hoffman, a former Republican National Committee finance chairman, who added that the governor remains on his 2016 short list, along with Bush and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. "Christie has got to win his way back into favor. I think donors want to wait and see."
A successful term at the helm of the RGA is widely viewed as a stepping stone to a national campaign. Former Govs. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts and Rick Perry both served as RGA chairmen before running for president. Jindal, a potential Christie rival in 2016, just concluded his chairmanship and is serving as vice chairman this year. Leading the RGA allows governors harboring national ambition to travel around the country, raise their national profile and connect with donors, all while rallying voters around colleagues seeking reelection.
Christie was on track to do just that before records made public last week revealed that allies engineered four days of gridlock on the George Washington Bridge last September to punish a local mayor who withheld his endorsement. Christie's problems have mounted this week amid reports that federal officials are investigating whether he improperly spent Superstorm Sandy relief funds on self-promotional ads. Additional public records suggest Christie sought reprisal against another Democratic mayor.
"We don't know how long Gov. Christie will be in crisis, maybe a few weeks or maybe a long time," said American Conservative Union Chairman Al Cardenas, who excluded Christie from the group's annual conference last year because of his post-Sandy chumminess with President Obama. "I would hope the dust settles sooner rather than later so that he can be a successful fundraiser for other Republicans."