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.”
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.
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.”
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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