Governor Chris Christie made another one of his in-again, out-again appearances as the GOP’s fundraiser-in-chief on Tuesday in New York City, at an event with Senator Mitch McConnell for the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC). It was all hush-hush, with no word on who attended the meeting, but Christie was accompanied by his wife, Mary Pat, who’s long worked on Wall Street, and by Jeff Chiesa, an old colleague from Christie’s days in the US attorney’s office in Newark. Chiesa, who briefly served as a US senator himself, appointed by Christie to fill Senator Frank Lautenberg’s seat, has since settled comfortably into a well-paid job at Wolff & Samson, the blue-chip law firm that was founded by none other than—you guessed it—David Samson, the chairman of the Port Authority.
And Christie didn’t speak to reporters, either. When a reporter from the Bergen Record asked Christie what message he planned to deliver, the New Jersey governor replied, “Seriously? Are you kidding me?” with typical Jersey aplomb. And, according to the Record, “A spokeswoman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee declined to comment on the event.” Yet Michael Catalini at Hot Air reports that at least one former NRSC official, Rob Jesmer, believes in Christie’s appeal. “The governor is still very, very popular amongst our donor base and the party,” said Jesmer, who’s currently a lobbyist with FP1 Strategies in Washington. “Despite what’s happened in the past couple of weeks, he is still going to be a very formidable candidate for president.”
The governor was speaking to his base, namely, the big donors who’ll have to finance the NRSC, the Republican Governors Association—which Christie heads in 2014—and other GOP coffers. If Christie has any prayer of becoming the GOP nominee in 2016, it’ll be because none of his would-be opponents, including the Tea Party–inclined far right, can compete with Christie’s connections to Wall Street and heavyweight GOP contributors. In the next few weeks, Christie—on behalf of the Republican Governors Association—plans to pay visits to Massachusetts, Utah, Georgia, Michigan and Connecticut, following recent trips to Florida, Texas and Illinois. He’ll also appear this week in Washington at the National Governor’s Association, where the RGA will also be holding side meetings.
All along Christie has been planning to use the RGA as a stepping stone to the GOP nomination in 2016, and his visits allow him to expand his Rolodex of big givers for a Christie-for-President campaign. There will be campaigns in thirty-six states for governor, including three in early presidential primary states: Iowa, South Carolina and Florida. But Christie’s ability to maneuver at the RGA has been crippled by the fact that a key aide whom Christie had sent to work as a consultant to the RGA, Bill Stepien, has already fallen victim to the Bridgegate scandal. Stepien, who’d been Christie’s campaign manager for his 2013 reelection, had occupied the office just across the hall from Christie’s own office in the New Jersey state house, alongside Bridget Anne Kelly, another Bridgegate victim. Former New Jersey Governor Tom Kean, who introduced Christie to politics when Christie was a teenager, told the Newark Star-Ledger that Stepien was Christie’s “alter ego,” adding, “When the governor needed something done on political side, he went to Bill Stepien.” The loss of Stepien at RGA creates a huge hole at the heart of Christie’s national political operation, and it’s not clear how he’ll be replaced.
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Though it gives Christie an advantage in preparing for 2015–16, the fact that Christie is leading RGA this year isn’t the way it was supposed to be. In fact, Bobby Jindal, the governor of Louisiana and a long-shot candidate for the GOP nod in 2016 himself, was originally slated to take over the RGA in 2014, with Christie getting the job a year earlier. Christie had been vice-chair in 2012—but he wanted to wait for the top job until the midterm election year, positioning himself better for a national profile and allowing him to engage in dozens of gubernatorial campaigns. As CNN reported:
With a flurry of phone calls and e-mails to his fellow governors, Christie charged ahead and launched a behind-the-scenes campaign to shake up the planned order of succession and take over the RGA in 2014, multiple Republican sources told CNN. Jindal started whipping up his own votes.
The campaigning grew intense enough that [Virginia Governor Bob] McDonnell fired off an a internal note to his fellow governors urging them to keep their eyes on a more pressing challenge—the presidential election, then little more than a few weeks away.
In so doing, Christie earned the enmity of Texas Governor Rick Perry, a Jindal ally and another possible 2016 candidate. Since the Bridgegate scandal has erupted, Perry has gone out of his way to disparage Christie, perhaps in part because Christie, a Romney ally in 2012, suggested in public that Perry was not quite ready for prime time.
In any case, Christie and the RGA are pulling in the checks. In 2013, the RGA raised more than $50 million, with large sums coming from the tobacco industry, drug companies, hospitals, insurers, and the oil and gas industry. And it had its biggest January ever, thanks to Christie’s efforts in Florida, Texas and elsewhere. At least some of that money has been coming from the GOP’s usual suspects, including the Koch brothers, casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, businessman Leslie Wexner and hedge fund chief Paul Singer, each of whom contributed more than $1 million to the RGA. (See the investigation by the Center for Public Integrity, and check out the RGA’s IRS reports here.)
On Thursday Christie makes his first public appearance in weeks at a town hall in Port Monmouth, New Jersey, and Christie Watch will be there to report on what happens.