Gov. Chris Christie heads to Florida this weekend to woo Republican donors — and find out whether he can shake off the subpoenas and scandal back home in New Jersey.
Christie, the new chairman of the Republican Governors Association, is set to appear at several fundraisers for Florida Gov. Rick Scott and the RGA , which will defend 20 GOP incumbents this year.
But more critical to Christie’s own political career is likely to be a gathering Sunday at the North Palm Beach home of Ken Langone, the Home Depot founder and major GOP donor who wants Christie to run for president in 2016. Langone says he has invited about 150 potential donors to “meet and greet” Christie in hopes that if he runs they will support him.
Though the event has been planned for months, Langone says the guests will likely ask Christie about the politically-motivated traffic jam at the George Washington Bridge. “I’ve got to believe one of the questions is… were you involved in this? Did you know anything about it?” he said in an interview. “Obviously there’s a heightened curiosity because of what the media’s done with this bridge situation.”
The bridge scandal, in which Christie’s aides apparently caused gridlock in Fort Lee, N.J., as political payback against its Democratic mayor, is unfolding just as Christie takes the reins at the RGA, a top job in the Republican Party and one that often has been a precursor to a presidential run.
Langone said discussion among his fellow major donors has been simply “that we hope he wasn’t involved.” He has no doubts that Christie did not know about his aides’ apparent political payback – based on the governor’s insistence he was “blindsided” by the news of his staff’s actions. “I believe him … If he’s not telling the truth, he’s a dead man walking.”
Fred Malek, the RGA’s finance chairman, says the bridge story is having no impact on fundraising.
“At this point in time, there has been no fallout whatsoever from our donor class,” Malek said.
But there already has been fallout at the RGA: last week Christie dumped his two-time campaign manager Bill Stepien, who was implicated in the bridge scandal, from a new job as political adviser to the RGA. Christie also yanked Stepien from a new position as chairman of the New Jersey GOP.
A special state committee is investigating the traffic tie-up, caused by closing bridge access lanes. On Thursday the panel fired off 20 subpoenas without naming the targets, and Christie announced he had hired a former federal prosecutor to conduct an internal review. A second Christie staffer and two of the governor’s appointees to the agency that oversees the bridge have already lost their jobs. The risk to Christie is that a drawn-out investigation involving his top staff could make him look like what Langone says he isn’t: a “classic political hack.”
“If you think that Republican donors are as geared up about this as the Democrats and their friends in the liberal media, you’re kidding yourself,” says Haley Barbour, former Mississippi governor who headed the RGA in 2009-10. “This story is not going to have a lot of half life with the average person, including the average donor.”
It won’t be for lack of trying by the Democratic Party. In Florida, Christie will be greeted by Democratic Party chairwoman Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who plans multiple news conferences coinciding with the fundraisers.
Christie is leading the RGA in a busy year.. He must spearhead raising more than $ 100 million and headline more than 50 fundraisers. The advantage is increased visibility — perhaps not necessary in Christie’s case — and the opportunity to build a national network of supporters and donors. Mitt Romney and Rick Perry both led the RGA shortly before they became candidates.
“Christie is a great draw for people,” Malek says. “For one thing, he’s dynamic and charismatic and for another, people see him as a front runner.”
Contributing: Asbury Park Press