Governor Chris Christie’s darkest moment, at least in the eyes of some members of the Republican establishment, came on a chilly Sunday night in early November of last year, just days before the presidential election. What Christie and his team did that evening, in a series of terse e-mails and calls with the pleading Romney camp, remains murky. On Capitol Hill, insiders still treat the episode like the Zapruder film, analyzing it and trying to discern, from limited context, what exactly happened.
But what didn’t happen is indisputable: Christie didn’t attend Mitt Romney’s rally at Shady Brook Farm in Lower Makefield, Pa., an affluent township in the Philadelphia suburbs. Christie’s aides insist he was busy working on Hurricane Sandy relief, but to this day many of Romney’s donors and former advisers suspect the governor coolly abandoned them at the eleventh hour. They note that Trenton, New Jersey’s state capital, was only a 15-minute drive away, a short hop over the Calhoun Street Bridge, and that Christie made no effort. Two days later, Romney would lose deeply purple Pennsylvania and the election.
Ever since, Christie’s relationship with the Republican political class has been uneasy — he’s been seen not as a traitor, necessarily, but as a too-clever-by-half operator who didn’t do all he could for the nominee. The image of Christie happily hugging President Obama on the tarmac — and being AWOL for Romney, right as he was slipping in the polls — was seared into the consciousness of the conservative elite.
Christie’s inner circle has taken the complaints seriously, fearing their implications ahead of the 2016 presidential election. For the past nine months, they have quietly labored behind the scenes to woo the party’s skeptical power brokers. Their maneuvers have included huddles with Republican moneymen, off-the-record powwows with conservative journalists, and late-night conversations with past backers.
Officially, such sessions with national Republicans and figures of the right are considered part of Christie’s reelection campaign, but his playbook is filled with the broader, tacit push for his political rehabilitation. According to Christie sources, the nuanced relationship-building and donor outreach is being led by Bill Palatucci, Christie’s longtime strategist and friend, while Mike DuHaime, Christie’s other (and younger) senior political adviser, is more focused on the mechanics behind Christie’s gubernatorial race and day-to-day politics.
Ken Langone, the billionaire cofounder of Home Depot, is another important player in this informal project. Two years ago, as Washington Post reporter Dan Balz chronicled in his book Collision 2012, Langone gathered a group of more than 50 prominent Christie supporters from Wall Street and elsewhere at a tony restaurant in New York City, where they urged Christie to jump into the Republican presidential primary. Since January, Langone has been staying in touch with those financiers, planning fundraisers and keeping them enthusiastic about Christie’s future. In the meantime, more than $9 million has poured into Christie’s coffers.
Later this month, Christie will be in the Hamptons, chatting up Republican donors at the home of Clifford Sobel, a former ambassador in the George W. Bush administration. Former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, erstwhile darling of the Big Apple’s GOP set, will host the event. Palatucci, who is close with the Bush family, having led the Garden State campaigns for both George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush, is reportedly taking care to connect the vaunted Bush network, which has been friendly to Christie in the past, with his Jersey boss.
“The group is there, believe me, and it’s growing by the day, maybe by a factor of 50 times more than what it was in 2011,” Langone tells me. “He’s getting traction with people because people want to win. After 2012, it dawned on a lot of us that we need to have a better candidate, somebody who can connect, and Christie is the person who can do that.” Langone doesn’t make much of criticism of Christie’s handling of Hurricane Sandy: “I know some people say [Christie] got too close to [Obama], but it wasn’t a time for politics and pandering. It was a crisis! I saw it firsthand at NYU’s medical center, and people who get that aren’t unhappy with him.”