When New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) was elected to be this year’s chairman of the Republican Governors Association, the likely presidential aspirant probably had something very specific in mind.
Fundraising. His official job as chairman, after all, is to help elect Republican governors, making it a job that demands a quintessential skill of the American politician: the ability to raise enough cash to run an effective campaign.
As anyone with an eye toward the White House knows, the job also gives the chairman wide access to donors in a host of state party networks, giving him an opportunity to glad-hand, build relationships, and recruit the kind of people good at opening pocketbooks – essential foundations for an arduous national run.
But since Governor Christie has been hamstrung by the slow-simmering investigations into his role in Bridge-gate, in which his closest aides conspired to punish a small-borough Democrat who had not made a bipartisan endorsement during Christie’s reelection efforts last fall, many have wondered whether the scandal would spook potential donors, harming his fundraising for Republican governors – as well as his long-expected presidential bid.
So far, the New Jersey governor has shown that he hasn’t lost his fundraising chops quite yet – and perhaps his viability as a national candidate. Indeed, on Tuesday in Chicago, Christie raked in $1 million, the Republican Governors Association reported, after he attended private events throughout the day. This included a morning event for Jim Durkin, Republican leader in the Illinois House; an afternoon event with Chicago billionaire Ken Griffin; and a number of one-on-one meetings with big donors.
This comes after Christie – who launched his own political career as a savvy campaign bundler for former President George W. Bush, an important factor in his being appointed US attorney in 2001 – already raised $1.5 million during fundraising stops in Texas last week. His schedule includes a number of additional fundraising stops in Michigan, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Georgia, and Utah in the coming weeks.
With Christie’s and others’ help, last month saw a record haul for the governors association, which reported Tuesday that it had raised $6 million in January – more than double the amount it had ever raised the first month of any year.
The good news continued for Christie’s fundraising Tuesday, too, when New Jersey campaign-finance regulators gave the go-ahead for the governor’s reelection campaign to resume raising money to pay for its mounting legal fees. Both the US attorney and the state Legislature are investigating the lane closures at the George Washington Bridge last September.
His campaign had used public matching funds, so it was limited to spending about $12.2 million, which it did. It has about $126,000 left, campaign officials say.
None of the funds raised this week were for Christie’s coffers, of course, but that’s not the point at this stage, observers say.
“We have to look beyond just donors,” says Christina Greer, professor of urban politics at Fordham University in New York. “We have to look at people who can network for you. Before we even start talking about big money, we actually have to talk about the small communities that want to get the word out and the buzz interested in you, because if you don’t have that, you don’t have the money.”
“It’s like the step before the step,” Professor Greer continues. “If you’ve been to these events, they don’t ask you for money the first time you go. They just try to cultivate a relationship.”
All the current fundraising success appears to have energized Christie, who, after lying low this past month after the Bridge-gate scandal erupted, returned to his brash, taunting self during a non-fundraising appearance at the Economic Club of Chicago.
In many ways, it was the return of Christie-the-potential-presidential-candidate, as he touched on themes of bipartisanship, saying his success in New Jersey stemmed from his ability to work with Democrats. He also returned to arguments he had made in the past in front of national audiences.
“I think as you look forward to 2016, our party’s priority should be on winning,” Christie told the audience of 1,600 business leaders. “Not winning the argument. Winning the election.... Parties tend to become pragmatic when they’re powerless. It’s time for us to get pragmatic.”
Still, Bridge-gate, as well as his party’s rightward drift, has changed the dynamic. Tea party message boards teem with “RINO” references – “Republican in Name Only” – and a powerful refrain has emerged from his right-wing Republican naysayers and Democratic critics both.
“I just don’t know all the information out there, but it’s hard to be the CEO of an organization and not know what the closest people to you are up to,” said tea party favorite Sarah Palin, former Republican governor of Alaska, on “Inside Edition” Tuesday. “I know when I was mayor and manager of this city and then governor of the state, certainly you know what your top aides are up to.”
Democrats, who have developed a strategy of following the New Jersey governor as he raises funds across the country, have also been saying this for months. “Either the governor knew and he is lying, or he is the most inept, incompetent chief executive imaginable,” said Ted Strickland, former Democratic governor of Ohio.
The question remains, however, whether donors and other bundlers will commit to a Christie presidential bid. Yet his Bridge-gate travails might have a fundraising bright side.
“If I were a donor, I might think about it this way,” says Greer. “We know that there’s so many journalists from so many organizations across the country that have been digging into every single facet of Christie’s past. So in some ways, as a donor, I might feel more comfortable with that, because the pre-vetting process has already happened.”
“So Christie can essentially say, listen, they found everything that they can find, and this is the best they can come up with,” she continues. “So for us to discount anyone at this point in time would be foolish.”