New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is raising record cash for his re-election bid. A November landslide may help heal rifts with fellow Republicans and boost his standing as a possible candidate for president in 2016.
In December, before Democrats had even rallied around a candidate, Christie had amassed almost as much as he raised in the entire 2009 primary. He has since begun an out-of-state fundraising swing, with an event last month at Facebook Inc. co-founder Mark Zuckerberg’s California home and an appearance last week in Wisconsin with Governor Scott Walker.
Christie, 50, is enjoying record approval in New Jersey for his response to Hurricane Sandy. Almost half of Democratic voters say he deserves another term as he leads his challenger, state Senator Barbara Buono, by 36 percentage points. Out of state, the governor has drawn criticism from some national Republicans for praising President Barack Obama’s help after the storm and scolding party members in Congress for aid delays.
“If he wants to run for president, he’s got to show that he’s got a capacity to raise big national money,” said Matthew Hale, who teaches politics at Seton Hall University in South Orange. “The more he can raise and the more donors he can tap into, those are people that down the road he can turn to for presidential fundraising.”
Christie raised $17.6 million from private donors and public funding for his 2009 race for governor, according to data from the state’s Election Law Enforcement Commission. He ousted incumbent Democrat Jon Corzine, a former Goldman Sachs Group Inc. co-chairman who raised $32 million and self-financed most of his effort to win a second term.
Christie had raised $2.3 million by 2009’s June primary, more than any other New Jersey candidate for governor who didn’t finance his or her own campaign. For this year’s race, he raised $2.1 million through Dec. 31, while Buono drew $215,000. The next fundraising reports are due in April.
Mike DuHaime, a political adviser to Christie and lead strategist behind his 2009 victory, said even the most competitive of Republicans in New Jersey needs to wage an all-out effort in order to overcome Democrats’ 3-2 edge among registered voters.
Christie, the first Republican elected New Jersey governor since 1997, won the 2009 race with 48 percent to Corzine’s 45 percent, as voters rejected the one-term Democrat’s handling of the 18-month recession that began in 2007.
Democratic politicians this year rallied around Buono, a 59-year-old lawyer from Metuchen, after more popular members of her party -- Newark Mayor Cory Booker, former acting Governor Richard Codey and Senate President Stephen Sweeney -- all opted not to run.
In a March 12 poll by Fairleigh Dickinson University’s PublicMind, Christie led Buono, 58 percent to 22 percent. He had approval from 66 percent of voters, including 55 percent of Democrats.
If Buono is able to come close or prevent a landslide, it will hurt perceptions of Christie, said Seton Hall’s Hale.
“The more that he runs up the point differential, the better,” Hale said.
Christie’s calls for smaller government and lower taxes made him a national Republican figure. He turned down calls to run for president in October 2011, saying he couldn’t abandon his commitment to help New Jersey voters recover from the recession. He hasn’t ruled out a 2016 White House bid.
The governor delivered the keynote address in August at the Republican National Convention as the party officially nominated former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney to challenge Obama. Christie raised money and campaigned for Romney until Sandy. The Oct. 29 storm killed 38 New Jerseyans, blacked out 2.7 million and leveled beach towns and boardwalks.
Christie praised Obama’s response to Sandy ahead of Election Day, angering Romney campaign staffers and conservative talk-radio host Rush Limbaugh, who blamed him for the Democratic incumbent’s win. The governor then scolded Republicans in the House of Representatives for delaying a vote on disaster aid.
Those moves led to him being excluded from the Conservative Political Action Conference last week, said a person familiar with the matter who wasn’t allowed to speak publicly for CPAC and asked not to be named.
“To win big in a state that is not known as a rock-solid Republican state sets the stage or the tone for how he’s perceived by people looking at other solutions for the future of this party,” said Chip Felkel, a Republican consultant in South Carolina who worked on President George W. Bush’s campaign. “Everybody likes a winner. To that extent, every difficulty he’s had with people in the party, a big win would put a lot of salve on those wounds.”
Buono has said Christie’s views are out of step with mainstream New Jersey and that some of his decisions, including vetoing higher taxes on millionaires, are designed to play to a national Republican audience.
“Governor Christie’s travel record sort of speaks to his ambitions for a higher political office,” said David Turner, a Buono spokesman. “He’s clearly using New Jersey as a stepping stone.”
Emily’s List, a Washington political action committee that raises money for female Democrats who support abortion rights, has vowed to help Buono unseat Christie. The group helped fund the 2012 campaign of Democrat Elizabeth Warren, the first woman elected U.S. senator from Massachusetts.
Even with Christie’s sizable lead, the campaign will be costly because New Jersey has no major television or radio stations of its own and has to run ads in New York and Philadelphia, two of the nation’s most expensive media markets, DuHaime said. He declined to discuss fundraising targets.
“We’re preparing for an election in a very blue state,” he said. “This is a very expensive state to communicate in.”
Jeffrey Brindle, executive director of the election law-enforcement agency, said he expects outside groups that don’t have to identify their donors to funnel as much as $25 million into the Christie-Buono race, based on recent donations in other states. Such groups, which include nonprofits incorporated as 501 (c)(4) organizations, poured $21 million into the Washington governor’s race last year and $45 million into California’s 2010 contest.
“Virginia and New Jersey will be the only states with governors’ races, so there will be a lot of interest,” Brindle said in an interview.