Chris Christie’s connections to wealthy individual and corporate donors are about to expand exponentially as he assumes the chairmanship of the Republican Governors Association later this week.
The assignment also will allow the New Jersey governor to boost his national profile and collect political favors while running ads for and delivering RGA checks to candidates campaigning for governor in 2014 -- including those in states with early presidential primary contests.
“Essentially, the RGA is a large bank and the chairman of the RGA is the CEO of the bank and that brings you into contact with a lot of Republican donors around the country,” said Eric Fehrnstrom, an aide to former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney when he was RGA chairman in 2006 and during his two presidential campaigns. “Those connections are invaluable, if you later plan to become a national candidate.”
They don’t come without downsides. The fundraising schedule the job demands will provide opponents with ammunition to claim Christie is ignoring New Jersey as he contemplates a 2016 White House bid.
“It gives you access to high-dollar donors, it gives you a reason to visit a lot of states and get better known, and it allows you to build goodwill with the party,” said Fehrnstrom. “It also gives your critics at home a lot of fodder to criticize your absence.”
Christie, 51, will take the chairmanship tomorrow during the second day of the RGA’s annual conference in Scottsdale, Arizona. He replaces Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, another potential 2016 White House candidate.
Christie has said he’s focusing on his jobs at the RGA and in New Jersey, and he won’t rush a presidential decision.
“If you make decisions before it’s the right time to make them, you increase geometrically the chance to screw that decision up,” he said Nov. 18 at a Wall Street Journal event in Washington. “Not something I want to screw up.”
Presidential aspirants from both parties have used governor association leadership posts to gain favor with partisans and state party officials as they paved the way for their White House races.
In 2006, Romney hand-delivered as much as $1 million in donations to gubernatorial candidates in Michigan, Iowa and Florida, three primary states he was counting on during his unsuccessful 2008 campaign.
The RGA, which isn’t regulated by the Federal Election Commission, is free to woo large donations from individuals, corporations and special interests. The chairman plays the primary role in deciding which races receive funding, although all decisions are approved by an executive committee that includes other governors.
Internal Revenue Service records show the checks fueling the RGA so far this year include $1 million from billionaire energy executive David Koch; $600,000 from WellPoint Inc., the nation’s second-biggest health insurer; $500,000 from the Florida Power and Light Co.; and $500,000 from Mike Shannon, the managing director of KSL Capital Partners, a private-equity firm focusing on the travel industry.
Another $1 million donation came from Dallas-based Contran Corp., whose chairman is Texas billionaire Harold Simmons. Others who contributed $250,000 or more include the American Beverage Association, San Antonio-based USAA Investment Management Co., the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America and Wal-Mart Stores Inc.
As a foundation of its fundraising, the RGA maintains an “Executive Roundtable” that requires a minimum contribution of $25,000. The membership grants donors access to events throughout the year where they can mingle with governors.
The Republican and Democratic governor associations are traditionally some of the nation’s largest political fundraising entities. The RGA took in $23.6 million during the first half of 2013, while the Democratic Governors Association reported collecting $13.4 million.
The governor of the state that traditionally hosts the first presidential nomination voting -- Iowa’s Terry Branstad -- faces a re-election test in 2014 and Christie will have the opportunity to deliver RGA cash to him. That’s also true in two other important states, South Carolina and Florida, where Republican incumbent Governors Nikki Haley and Rick Scott also face re-election.
In 2010, the RGA gave Branstad $1.25 million when then Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour was chairman of the association and contemplating a 2012 presidential bid. Barbour’s tenure was followed in 2011 by another White House aspirant, Texas Governor Rick Perry.
Christie also relied on RGA assistance in his 2009 win against then-incumbent Governor Jon Corzine, a Democrat and former Goldman Sachs Group Inc. executive.
As part of his Nov. 5 re-election, Christie benefited from RGA money and advertising. The group spent $1.7 million on his campaign, said RGA spokesman Jon Thompson.
The assistance to Christie came as $1.6 million was donated to the association by individuals and businesses in New Jersey during the first six months of the year, IRS records show. New Jersey, unlike some states, restricts contributions from people and businesses that have significant contracts with the state. A group like the RGA gives donors who might not otherwise be able to give to Christie a way to bypass the law.
As was the case with Romney when he led the RGA, Christie already has a robust national fundraising network. Facebook Inc. co-founder Mark Zuckerberg, LinkedIn Corp. co-founder Reid Hoffman, Home Depot Inc. co-founder Kenneth Langone and venture capitalist Marc Andreessen were among his re-election donors.
Christie won his second term with a margin of 22 percentage points after securing the majority of women and Hispanic voters, both segments his party is trying to court more aggressively.
Should Christie pursue a 2016 White House bid, his economic record will also be among the areas scrutinized.
As governor, unemployment in New Jersey fell to 8.5 percent in August, from 9.7 percent in February 2010. That’s still 1.2 percentage points higher than the U.S. average for August, and tied for the seventh-highest among the states.
In his leadership role at the national organization, the governor is expected to spread his message about the importance of being a more inclusive party that places greater emphasis on winning and governing than on policy purity.
“What it does for him is it gives him the opportunity to get in some red states and to visit under the cover of the Republican Governors Association,” said Jon Huntsman Jr., a former Republican governor from Utah and 2012 presidential candidate. “He has a network in the fundraising community, but this will expand that.”
There are also pitfalls with the job and Christie will have to take into consideration other Republican governors, including Wisconsin’s Scott Walker and Jindal, who might also be looking at 2016 for a White House run, Huntsman said.
“In that sense, it sometimes cuts both ways,” he said. “You have a job to do, which is to raise money and to support Republican candidates running for governor. But you are also sitting around the table with some other egos, some of whom may have higher aspirations as well.”