Big GOP Donors Still Believe in Chris Christie

Donors, holding out hope for New Hampshire, say it is too early to give up on the New Jersey governor.

National Journal
Aug. 11, 2015, 8:58 a.m.

Be­fore Fox News premiered a Re­pub­lic­an de­bate last week, Bob­bie Kil­berg, one of Chris Christie’s biggest evan­gel­ists and bund­lers, dialed up roughly a dozen po­ten­tial donors. She wanted them to make a pledge.

Many donors were in­trigued by Christie, but they wanted to hold off on writ­ing their checks un­til they saw if the New Jer­sey gov­ernor still was the same bel­li­cose and straight-talk­ing politi­cian who had once stirred ex­cite­ment in the hearts of mod­er­ate Re­pub­lic­ans and led New Jer­sey through a $36.9 bil­lion hur­ricane.

Christie had a mes­sage for sup­port­ers Thursday night. He may not be a front-run­ner, but he has still got something to say. Dur­ing the 10-per­son de­bate, Christie’s mo­ments were few but mem­or­able. And an ex­plos­ive ex­change on na­tion­al se­cur­ity and data col­lec­tion as­sured donors Christie still had more than a little fire.

“You know, when you are sit­ting in a sub­com­mit­tee just blow­ing hot air about this, you can say things like that,” Christie said shak­ing his fin­ger at liber­tari­an-lean­ing Sen. Rand Paul of Ken­tucky. “When you are re­spons­ible for pro­tect­ing the lives of the Amer­ic­an people, then what you need to do is to make sure that you use the sys­tem the way it is sup­posed to work.”

In the 24 hours after the de­bate, Kil­berg says that she heard back from eight of the 14 sup­port­ers she’d reached out to. They were ready to back Christie.

“They liked what they saw,” Kil­berg told Na­tion­al Journ­al.

In the last two years, Christie has slid from one of the Re­pub­lic­an Party’s most ser­i­ous White House con­tenders to an em­battled politi­cian fight­ing debt-rat­ing down­grades back home and low, single-di­git poll num­bers across the coun­try. The Bridgeg­ate scan­dal, a slug­gish state eco­nomy, and a sym­bol­ic hug with Re­pub­lic­an pub­lic-en­emy No. 1—Pres­id­ent Obama—have all taken their toll on Christie.

But Christie’s de­bate per­form­ance Thursday was enough to keep a few high-rolling donors in­ter­ested.

“Among a strong field of GOP can­did­ates, I be­lieve Gov­ernor Chris Christie and his no-non­sense, tell-it-like-it-is ap­proach is the kind of lead­er­ship our na­tion needs at this time. His plan for mov­ing our coun­try for­ward is strong, clear, and devoid of the vague­ness and fog­gi­ness that has defined too many of our na­tion’s politi­cians for far too long,” Quick­en Loans founder and Clev­e­land Cava­liers Own­er Daniel Gil­bert told Na­tion­al Journ­al. “We saw a pos­it­ive pre­view of the gov­ernor’s lead­er­ship dur­ing the re­cent de­bate at the Quick­en Loans Arena in Clev­e­land. I don’t be­lieve this pres­id­en­tial race has even star­ted yet. It is a mara­thon that Gov­ernor Christie is well-suited to win.”

Gil­bert con­trib­uted $750,000 of the $11 mil­lion the su­per PAC back­ing Christie raised in the first half of 2015. And his con­tin­ued sup­port is a re­mind­er that in the age of su­per PACs, a few in­ves­ted donors may be all that is needed to get can­did­ates over the next cam­paign hurdle.

Christie has now entered a weeklong fun­drais­ing swing along the East Coast with stops planned in the Hamp­tons, Cape Cod, Long Is­land, the Jer­sey shore, and Nan­tuck­et.

Yet, even with a bit of mo­mentum after the de­bate, Christie still sits on the bubble between break­ing through and tum­bling in­to the bot­tom rung of can­did­ates. In a race with 17 can­did­ates com­pet­ing for a small pool of donors and a just-awaken­ing elect­or­ate, Christie’s po­s­i­tion is in flux.

As the former lead­er of the Re­pub­lic­an Gov­ernor’s As­so­ci­ation, Christie had ties to some of the party’s biggest donors. Yet his su­per PAC’s haul was still bested by those of fel­low can­did­ates Marco Ru­bio, Jeb Bush, and Ted Cruz. Dur­ing the de­bate, Christie—like sev­er­al oth­er non-Trump can­did­ates—en­dured long lulls without any ques­tions. And Christie barely made the 10-per­son prime-time stage Thursday at all.

After the de­bate, an early on­line poll from Re­u­ters/Ipsos shows Christie out­man­euvered by busi­ness­wo­man Carly Fior­ina. Ac­cord­ing to that poll, which in­cluded just more than 250 Re­pub­lic­an voters, Christie is tied with B-team de­baters like former Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Louisi­ana Gov. Bobby Jin­dal with 1 per­cent of the vote. A Suf­folk Uni­versity poll Tues­day showed that while nearly 11 per­cent of likely Re­pub­lic­an Iowa caucus­go­ers found Christie’s con­front­a­tion with Paul to be the most mem­or­able mo­ment of the de­bate, just one per­son out of 300 sur­veyed thought Christie was the most im­press­ive can­did­ate on­stage.

But Mike DuHaime, a strategist for Christie’s cam­paign, says the field is still “com­pletely wide open.”

“Christie has meth­od­ic­ally moved up,” DuHaime says. “We feel good right now and also real­ize there is a really long way to go.”

While the cam­paign points out that Christie has been spend­ing time in sev­er­al early states, Christie’s strategy and his donors’ hopes have long been settled on per­form­ing well in New Hamp­shire.

“New Hamp­shire really be­comes the test for him,” Bill Kil­berg, Bob­bie’s hus­band, said be­fore the de­bate. “There is no test be­fore that that really counts.”

Gene Ulm, a poll­ster for Christie’s su­per PAC, Amer­ica Leads, says that New Hamp­shire is “tail­or-made for Christie.”

“If you look at his travel sched­ule, you are see­ing how much he is cam­paign­ing there,” Ulm says. “John Mc­Cain did about 160 trips, and I would look for Chris Christie to beat that mark.”

Ulm says polling shows that voters who go and see Chris Christie in a town hall or cam­paign rally in New Hamp­shire are twice as likely to have a fa­vor­able opin­ion of him.

“If you go see him, you see the power and the force of this guy,” Ulm says.

Wheth­er Christie can stay afloat, however, long enough to make his ap­peal to voters will have everything to do with how long his donors will stick around. For now, his de­bate per­form­ance was enough to keep them be­liev­ing.

Cor­rec­tion: An earli­er ver­sion of this story misid­en­tiefied the gov­ernor’s as­so­ci­ation Christie led. It was the Re­pub­lic­an Gov­ernors As­so­ci­ation. 

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