If Chris Christie is seen as a presidential contender, the eyes of Texas couldn’t find him.
As the recently seated chairman of the Republican Governors Association, Christie is traveling cross-country to raise millions for his party, and the furor stirred by a politically motivated traffic jam back home is making his financial mission a stealth affair.
The New Jersey governor toured Dallas and Fort Worth, Texas, with a secret schedule yesterday, moving without Republican Governor Rick Perry or Greg Abbott, the party’s attorney general running to replace the retiring Perry. The Dallas County Republican Party said it didn’t know where Christie was going, and the RGA wouldn’t say.
When Christie arrived in Florida last month, joined by re-election seeking Republican Governor Rick Scott, the two evaded press contact in Orlando, Palm Beach and Plantation.
This is a politician who strolled the Jersey Shore’s boardwalks welcoming YouTube confrontations with rowdy constituents. Now, he’s ferried in limousines to closed-door fundraisers, eluding curbside reporters’ questions as he raises money to help Republicans compete in the 36 governors’ races.
“It shows how toxic Mr. Christie is, not just in Texas but across the country,” Gilberto Hinojosa, Texas Democratic Party chairman, said in Dallas yesterday as he arrived to spotlight the undisclosed fundraising meetings.
Christie, 51, will attend another “closed-press” fundraiser for the RGA in Illinois on Feb. 11 -- and notably, the association said in a press release, he will address the Economic Club of Chicago at an event open to reporters.
This was supposed to be Christie’s debut as a national political celebrity, the popular Jersey-strong voice offering the Republican Party a new choice for the White House in 2016. Instead, Christie’s RGA fundraising tour has started as “Bridgegate” -- on the road.
Christie’s ability to carry out his fundraising role and also regain the personal standing he held in opinion polls heading into the presidential election season depend on the outcome of investigations testing the governor’s assertion that he had no hand in the George Washington Bridge jam.
“We’ll find out the facts in time, and if they don’t prove anything new/bad linking it right to Christie, he’ll become a bit of a GOP martyr to D.C. media overkill,” said Mike Murphy, a Republican strategist, by e-mail. “He’ll still be a major candidate. That said, if any proof appears clearly making him a liar, get the fork ready as he’ll be done.”
In a party searching for new leaders, Christie rode out of November’s elections on a magic carpet.
He won re-election as governor by a 22 percentage-point margin in a state that hasn’t supported a Republican for president since 1988. In December, he stood statistically even with Hillary Clinton, the Democrat most likely to lead her party in 2016, in potential matchups tested in polls. Christie was favored among 48 percent of voters, Clinton 46 percent, in a Dec. 16-19 poll by CNN and ORC International.
One month later -- barely one week into the controversy over what his appointees did to commuters in New Jersey last fall -- Clinton led Christie by 13 points in a Jan. 12-14 NBC/Marist poll, Clinton with 50 percent compared with Christie at 37 percent.
On Jan. 9, Christie stood for almost two hours at a news conference in Trenton offering a public apology and 19,347-word explanation that he hadn’t known beforehand about lane closures leading to the bridge that snared traffic in Fort Lee, New Jersey, for four days in September.
He fired his deputy chief of staff, Bridget Anne Kelly, who had sent an Aug. 13 e-mail -- “time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee” -- to another Christie protege, David Wildstein, at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
As federal authorities probe who knew what and when, the saga has engulfed a governor widely known for a commanding role in the recovery following 2011’s “Superstorm Sandy.”
His own superstar idol and favorite son of New Jersey, singer Bruce Springsteen, has joined his critics. He appeared on NBC’s “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon,” with the duo singing to the tune of Springsteen’s “Born to Run.” Guitars in hand, bandannas on heads, Fallon sang: “We gotta get out while we can. We’re stuck in Governor Christie’s Fort Lee, New Jersey, traffic jam.”
Yet some say Christie can weather this political storm.
Awaiting a Shoe
Until “this bridge incident, Governor Christie had gotten pretty high marks on both sides of the aisle for being an excellent and effective governor,” said Al Cardenas, a former head of the Republican Party of Florida and now American Conservative Union chairman, in an e-mail. “Investigations are going on and Democrats are looking under every rock. The GOP has taken the governor at his word. As such, he should stay where he is unless another shoe drops. It doesn’t help with fundraising, but his departure would be worse. And unfair.”
Christie will get a chance to stake his claim to Republican support at the Conservative Political Action Conference that the ACU will host in Washington March 6-8, a forum for potential 2016 presidential candidates.
Several prominent Republicans have rallied to Christie’s defense. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker voiced confidence in Christie’s ability to lead the RGA, support echoed by Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin. Ken Cuccinelli, a former Virginia attorney general who lost his race for governor last year, has called on Christie to step down as RGA chairman.
“We got 36 governors’ races,” Jindal said in an interview on CNN Feb. 3. “RGA is not about one governor.”
It’s a big job.
The RGA, an organization free of contribution limits, raised $27 million in the last six months of 2013 with a total of $50 million for the year, according to a filing with the Internal Revenue Service last week. Among its biggest donors were Las Vegas Sands Corp. Chief Executive Officer Sheldon Adelson and Limited Brands Inc. CEO Leslie Wexner; each gave $1 million. Koch Industries Inc., the company whose founders Charles and David Koch have helped finance Tea Party groups, gave $525,000, and David Koch chipped in another $1.25 million. Rex Sinquefield, a Missouri entrepreneur who has also backed the limited-government movement, contributed $250,000.
The Democratic Governors Association reported raising $28 million for the full year.
With 22 of the governorships up for election this year held by Republicans, Democrats are seeking to retake presidential swing states such as Florida, Michigan and Pennsylvania.
Terry Holt, a Republican political consultant and adviser to businessman Fred Malek, RGA fundraising chairman, said the Christie controversy hasn’t affected its fundraising.
“The donor community is really looking at the presidential contest over the long haul,” Holt said. “They expect their front-runners to run into political attacks and controversy from time to time, and they’re taking a pretty realistic view of what’s going on.”
Democrats have pounced on the bridge story, seeking to tarnish a potential presidential contender as well as other Republican governors who appear alongside Christie.
In the RGA chairman’s first fundraising foray, traveling to Florida last month, Christie slipped into a fundraiser at the Orlando Country Club passing reporters barred from attendance, as Democrats staged a news conference nearby to bash Christie and Scott, whose re-election campaign received a $2.5 million check from the RGA at the event. Christie and Scott also appeared at the Palm Beach home of Jose “Pepe” Fanjul, executive vice president of Florida Crystals, and the Broward County home of lobbyist Bill Rubin.
The Florida-based chairman of the Democratic National Committee, Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz, staged public protests as a Sunshine State welcome for Christie.
On his second road trip, the Texas itinerary was more closely guarded. Christie wasn’t meeting with Perry, who waged his own campaign for president in 2012, the Texas governor’s spokeswoman Lucy Nashed said. Perry is considering a 2016 run.
Democrats eager to draw attention to Christie’s visit, yet unable to locate him, staged an event at a Communications Workers of America union hall in Dallas instead.
Hinojosa presided over the Texas welcome party, noting that neither Perry nor Abbott -- nor Steve Munisteri, chairman of the state Republican Party -- were on hand for Christie.
“They’ve put hundreds of miles between themselves and Chris Christie,” Hinojosa said.
When Perry ran the RGA, Hinojosa noted, “every time he had a fundraiser everyone was invited and knew where it was.” Now, he said of the RGA’s Christie, “No one knows where he is at, not even the chairman of the Republican Party of Texas.”