Donors to Chris Christie: Come On, Already

Jeb Bush is dominating the 2016 presidential chatter, and the New Jersey governor's fans are worried that he can't wait much longer.

New Jersey governor Chris Christie speaks at the Economic Club of Chicago in Chicago, Illinois, U.S., on Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2014.

Photograph by Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

January was supposed to be New Jersey Governor Chris Christie's month. He's traveling the country congratulating the Republican governors he helped elect last fall, a victory tour to set up his expected announcement of a presidential campaign.

But it's former Florida Governor Jeb Bush who is commanding the 2016 Republican spotlight. He has set up political action committees, has resigned from boards, and is holding his first fundraiser Wednesday in Connecticut. The recent headlines about Christie? Mostly about his man-hug at a Dallas Cowboys football game.

The turn of events has left Christie supporters wringing their hands about his next move and warning that there's only so long they'll sit on their wallets. “The longer a candidate waits, the harder it is for donors to resist entreaties from candidates who are not hesitating,” said Bobbie Kilberg, a Virginia businesswoman who is a friend of Christie's and a Republican presidential fundraiser. “There's a tipping point, and it may be soon.”

In mid-December, Bush said he would spend the early part of this year exploring a presidential bid, and his team registered a leadership PAC and super-PAC on Tuesday. Those moves were designed to “suck up as much oxygen in the room as quickly as possible,” said Dirk Van Dongen, a Washington trade association head who raised money for Bush's father and brother and will do so for him.

The Bush buzz has obliterated any chance of the 2016 Republican primary unfolding at a steady, deliberate pace, said Kevin Madden, a senior adviser to Mitt Romney during his 2012 presidential campaign. He called what's happening now the “sub-primary,” a competition for the biggest donors and smartest strategists.

“That universe of people are going to start getting anxious about being left behind,” he said. “It's even more competitive for Christie with Jeb in the mix because they occupy a similar space: chief executives with a strong appeal to the quote, unquote establishment. There's going to be pressure on Christie to match what Jeb is doing.”

Christie will develop any campaign on his own timeline, a senior adviser said, noting that Texas Governor Rick Perry waited until August 2011 to jump into the last presidential election and still had a shot at the Republican nomination. The Christie adviser called it “a really good sign” that donors are eager for the governor to get going.

Kilberg, also a friend of the Bush family and a top bundler for Romney, is just the kind of money-maker Christie should be locking down now. Republican primary candidates will need to raise $100 million in 2015,  Jack Oliver, former President George W. Bush's 2004 finance director, told Bloomberg Politics last month.

Christie is a proven fundraiser, reaping a record $106 million in his two years as head of the Republican Governors Association, but he has complications as a sitting governor. The Securities and Exchange Commission strictly prohibits people who are doing or may do business with a state from giving money to its chief executive. That means some of Wall Street's biggest political donors—a significant faction of the Christie fan club—can't give to him. Bush, out of office for eight years, has no such problem.

The restriction on Christie, Kilberg said, “is a serious issue. But I think he can overcome it because he has always cast such a wide net in his fundraising.”

Christie also can tap the donors he met while raising money for governors in his RGA job, which took him to some three dozen states. But that pool is also crowded. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, and Indiana Governor Mike Pence are among the executives mulling a try at the Republican nomination.

One of Christie's biggest boosters, Home Depot co-founder Ken Langone, spent December making the case that Christie will be able to raise plenty of money no matter when he gets in the race and would ultimately prevail in the primary. “America is ready for the truth and direct talk,” he told CNBC. “I'm doing everything I can for the governor to get the nomination.”

The Christie-for-president movement actually dates to 2011, when Langone was agitating for the governor, then in his first term, to get into the race. Christie decided not to, but he seemed poised for a 2016 run, particularly after taking great pains to showcase his bipartisan appeal while trouncing his Democratic opponent in November 2013, winning large shares of women and minority voters.

Then early last year, news erupted that Christie aides had ordered the closure of New Jersey-side lanes to the George Washington Bridge into Manhattan—possibly as retribution for a local Democratic mayor's refusal to endorse Christie's re-election. The governor denied direct knowledge of the aides' maneuvers. The investigations continue.

But even that scandal didn't dent his appeal to some of the party's biggest donors. At a fundraiser in Grand Rapids, Mich., for Governor Rick Snyder in March, billionaire Amway founder Richard DeVos expressed support for a Christie presidential run.

As of last month, Christie was still expressing uncertainty about his possible campaign's timing. In an hourlong interview Dec. 22 on NJTV, he said his decision would be based on his answer to three questions: whether it's the right move for himself, his family and the country. Interviewer Steve Adubato asked how Bush's announcement that he'd be taking steps toward a presidential campaign affected Christie's calculations.

The governor replied: “It's not one of the three questions.”

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