Can Chris Christie Still Be the GOP’s Rainmaker?

He’s supposed to be on the road, raising money for other governors. But with twin crises casting a shadow over him, some Republicans are keeping their distance.

ASBURY PARK, NJ - NOVEMBER 05: New Jersey Governor Chris Christie arrives to speak at his election night event after winning a second term at the Asbury Park Convention Hall on November 05, 2013 in Asbury Park, New Jersey. Incumbent Governor Chris Christie defeated his Democratic opponent Barbara Buono by a commanding margin. 
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Beth Reinhard
Jan. 15, 2014, midnight

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.”


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