Chris Christie’s Biggest Backer: ‘Would I Write a Check for $10 Million? No’

In an interview ahead of Christie’s kickoff, billionaire Ken Langone assesses what’s ahead for 2016.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie leaves a campaign event on June 12, 2015 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. 
National Journal
Shane Goldmacher
Add to Briefcase
Shane Goldmacher
June 30, 2015, 1 a.m.

As Chris Christie an­nounces his bid for the White House, he’s ex­pec­ted to lean heav­ily on the fin­an­cial sup­port and net­work of Ken Lan­gone, a bil­lion­aire Re­pub­lic­an donor and one of Christie’s most vis­ible and vo­cal back­ers.

But in an in­ter­view with Na­tion­al Journ­al on the eve of Christie’s launch, Lan­gone, a cofounder of Home De­pot with a For­bes-es­tim­ated net worth of $2.7 bil­lion, said he would not be dip­ping in­to his per­son­al for­tune to write the kind of massive, eight-fig­ure check to Christie’s su­per PAC that would in­stantly change the com­plex­ion of the 2016 race.

Ken Lan­gone (Scott Olson/Getty Im­ages)”Whoo-oo-oa, whoooa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa,” Lan­gone in­ter­rup­ted, when asked if he would make such a dona­tion from his own bank ac­count.

“Would I write a check for $10 mil­lion? No, no I wouldn’t. But I do something bet­ter than that,” Lan­gone said. “I go out and get a lot people to write checks, and get them to get people to write checks, and hope­fully res­ult in a hel­luva lot more than $10 mil­lion.”

(RE­LATED: Chris Christie Launches Cam­paign Web­site Three Days Be­fore His An­nounce­ment)

In the wide-ran­ging dis­cus­sion, Lan­gone spoke about the primary cal­en­dar (“the hell with Iowa”), the key to a Christie comeback (“a strong show­ing in New Hamp­shire”), and his as­sess­ment of the 2016 field (“George Pa­taki—give me a fuck­ing break”).

Still, the biggest rev­el­a­tion was that Lan­gone, 79, who has long been ex­pec­ted to be one of the chief un­der­writers of a Christie can­did­acy, is re­luct­ant to in­vest huge sums of his own money in his favored can­did­ate.

In a su­per PAC-era dom­in­ated by un­bridled giv­ing, the power and in­flu­ence of bund­lers like Lan­gone—and he’s seen as one of the Re­pub­lic­an Party’s best—has di­min­ished com­pared to that of mega-donors who single-handedly prop up can­did­ates, as Shel­don Ad­el­son and Foster Friess did for Newt Gin­grich and Rick San­tor­um, re­spect­ively, in 2012.

(RE­LATED: GOP Pres­id­en­tial Hope­fuls In­tro­duce Shel­don Ad­el­son-Backed Bill to Ban On­line Gambling)

Already, a hand­ful of GOP fam­il­ies have re­portedly pledged more than $30 mil­lion to help elect Sen. Ted Cruz. Sen. Marco Ru­bio has a bil­lion­aire back­er, Nor­man Bra­man, who’s said to be ready to spend $10 mil­lion or more. And Jeb Bush has a massive fun­drais­ing op­er­a­tion that is ex­pec­ted to amass around $100 mil­lion in the first six months of 2015.

Christie, who enters the con­test as a dis­tinct un­der­dog, al­most cer­tainly needs a ma­jor pat­ron will­ing to cut mul­ti­mil­lion-dol­lar checks, too. Lan­gone, who tried to re­cruit Christie in­to the 2012 pres­id­en­tial race and who stood by the New Jer­sey gov­ernor at the nadir of the bridge-clos­ing scan­dal, had long been on the short list of such po­ten­tial back­ers. He cer­tainly has the abil­ity to cut a big check. He and his wife have giv­en a total of $200 mil­lion to the New York Uni­versity Med­ic­al Cen­ter, which has since been named after him.

But he said he simply has a dif­fer­ent ap­proach to polit­ic­al giv­ing than donors like Ad­el­son, the casino mag­nate who spent, along with his wife, about $100 mil­lion on the 2012 elec­tion.

“I love Shel­don. I think Shel­don’s a great Amer­ic­an,” Lan­gone said. “But we all have our ways of do­ing it dif­fer­ently.”

While Lan­gone will donate some money—”I con­sider my­self a sig­ni­fic­ant sup­port­er of any can­did­ate I work for and I am cer­tainly gen­er­ous, I think, with my own funds”—he said his chief con­tri­bu­tion comes in rais­ing cash from oth­ers.

“I’m re­lent­less,” he said. “I’m not go­ing to stop. I put a mir­ror un­der your nose. If I see mist, I ask you for money. If there’s noth­ing there, I’m talk­ing to a stiff.”

(RE­LATED: Chris Christie PAC Paid for the Gov­ernor’s Tick­et and Travel to an NBA Fi­nals Game)

Lan­gone said he’s drawn to Christie’s blunt­ness, his will­ing­ness to tackle is­sues like the na­tion­al debt and en­ti­tle­ments, in­clud­ing So­cial Se­cur­ity, and his re­cord of reach­ing bi­par­tis­an con­sensus in left-lean­ing New Jer­sey. “He tells it like he sees it,” Lan­gone said. “He backs up his words with ac­tion and he’s re­lent­less in get­ting something done.”

Ken Lan­gone (left), with Elaine Lan­gone, and Amb. Stu­art Bern­stein (Mike Cop­pola/Getty Im­ages)As Christie jumps in­to a crowded Re­pub­lic­an field of more than a dozen can­did­ates this week, the fact that he’s not yet polling well doesn’t con­cern Lan­gone. “This cam­paign is aw­fully young,” he said. “I be­lieve Chris’s mes­sage, and the way he’ll de­liv­er it, will res­on­ate with the Amer­ic­an people. It’s that simple.”

And he dis­missed Iowa’s role in launch­ing the nom­in­at­ing pro­cess, ar­guing that New Hamp­shire—where Christie will fly im­me­di­ately after his an­nounce­ment in his New Jer­sey ho­met­own—will be key.

“Look, you’ve got to look at Iowa, and that’s those old ladies with knit­ting needles sit­ting around liv­ing rooms—I don’t un­der­stand it. And then South Car­o­lina—you’ve got Lind­sey Gra­ham in and he’s go­ing to have a com­mand­ing po­s­i­tion in that state,” Lan­gone said. “The one state that, I think, gives you some defin­i­tion is go­ing to be New Hamp­shire. I think if he’s up there fre­quently, and he’s up there banging away with these town-hall meet­ings, I think he’s go­ing to get trac­tion and I think he’s go­ing to res­on­ate.”

Christie still has plenty of time to break through, Lan­gone said. “For Christ’s sake, the elec­tion isn’t for 17 months. Six­teen and a half months. Come on. What do they say? One day is a life­time in polit­ics.”

Told that the Iowa and New Hamp­shire con­tests were far soon­er, Lan­gone re­tor­ted: “For­get Iowa. I say to you, the hell with Iowa. I’m try­ing to point out to you, I think the key elec­tion is New Hamp­shire.”

Lan­gone was no less out­spoken in his ana­lys­is of Christie’s op­pon­ents in the GOP field, nam­ing Bush first among Christie’s rivals.

“San­tor­um, for ex­ample, [Mike] Hucka­bee, I don’t see them mak­ing the grade,” he said. “[Bobby] Jin­dal, I don’t see Jin­dal. [John] Kasich—if Kasich jumps in, he could be a very, very strong com­pet­it­or—to any­body. Cer­tainly, Jeb Bush is there. Scott Walk­er from Wis­con­sin. I mean, George Pa­taki—give me a fuck­ing break.”

He called celebrity busi­ness­man Don­ald Trump “a guy who’s go­ing to make noise and make things hap­pen”—in a good way. “I view him as a very sig­ni­fic­ant pos­it­ive factor in the whole polit­ic­al pro­cess,” Lan­gone said.

As for his own role in the pro­cess, Lan­gone said he raises money out of love of coun­try.

“I have, nev­er, ever once, ever got­ten any­thing from any politi­cian I’ve ever helped. Not one thing,” he said. “And that’s go­ing to stay that way. I don’t need a job. I don’t want an ap­point­ment. I don’t want to be on a com­mis­sion. I don’t want to be am­bas­sad­or to nowhere. I don’t want any of that.”

“I raise money,” he said. “That’s all I do. And so far I’ve done a pretty good job.”

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