The GOP’s top-dollar donors had begun to warm to Chris Christie. Though the New Jersey governor was not a beloved figure among the establishment Republicans who worked to elect Mitt Romney in 2012, he has devoted time and effort to winning their affections. That is a task he continued on Sunday at the Palm Beach home of Home Depot co-founder Ken Langone, but it began long before.
At the ”E2” (Experts and Enthusiasts) summit Romney hosted in Park City, Utah, in June of last year, a Romney insider describes how Christie worked the bar until the wee hours of the morning. Though his arrival was greeted with “a lot of grumbling,” the insider says Christie proceeded to win over, one by one, some of Romney’s biggest financial backers. He put on a charm offensive that that insider describes as “masterful.” ”Most of the big donors have said, ‘This is our best chance of beating Hillary,’” he tells me. “Everybody thinks he’s a bully, but that’s something they decided they can live with.”
By the time Christie romped to reelection in November, the chattering class was pronouncing him the front-runner in the race to clinch the GOP nomination in the 2016 presidential election. Some were comparing him to George W. Bush, who was elected after Democrats held the White House for eight years and who, in the final years of his governorship, courted donors and party operatives in Austin as he plotted his run for office.
“The idea that he’s the prohibitive front-runner is over,” says a Republican strategist. Among the party’s money men, the reaction to the scandal that has rocked Trenton for the past week is divided. While some remain firmly supportive, others say the release of e-mails showing that one of Christie’s top aides colluded to close traffic lanes leading onto the George Washington Bridge has confirmed their worst suspicions about him. “This is one of the few moments where there’s not a pack mentality,” says the strategist.
Republican megadonor Paul Singer called Christie in the last day to tell him, in the words of somebody familiar with the situation, to stay strong. Singer remains committed to helping Christie succeed in his new position as chairman of the Republican Governors Association. “While some donors may be getting wobbly, he isn’t,” says the source.
For many of Romney’s top donors, by contrast, the scandal roiling Trenton is confirmation of their worst suspicions about Christie’s behavior. The 2012 campaign had already left a bad taste in their mouths — they cite the juxtaposition his failure to appear at a Philadelphia rally 48 hours before the election and his effusive praise of President Obama’s leadership at the same time, in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. “Everybody really is talking about this,” says somebody close to the Massachusetts governor. He tells me recent events have several donors ”thinking they should’ve trusted their instincts in the first place.” Donors, the Romney insider says, ”were beginning to open up to the idea of Christie, and then this happened.”
A major Romney bundler tells me the current scandal exacerbates the sense that Christie is willing to engage in “unsportsmanlike conduct” to achieve his goals. He likens Christie’s insistence during last week’s marathon press conference that “I am not a bully,” to Richard Nixon’s infamous declaration, in his hour-long question-and-answer session on the Watergate scandal, that “I am not a crook.” “Obviously, you are one,” the donor says, invoking the aphorism ”the fish rots from the head down.”
In his first interview since he faced reporters and announced the dismissal of two senior staff members last week, Christie told Yahoo! News’s Matt Bai, “I’m trying to get my arms around an awful situation and understand it, and then address it, and then resolve it.” He also vowed to learn from the situation.
“If he comes out of this, he comes out stronger, that’s the sense,” says the Romney insider.