Chris Christie’s fellow governors are standing by him but another scandal could be a bridge too far

By Murray Waas , written on February 5, 2014

From The News Desk

As New Jersey Governor Chris Christie continues to take fire over the George Washington Bridge closures and alleged wrongdoing over Hurricane Sandy relief, he at least retains the public backing of most prominent republicans, including his fellow members of the powerful Republican Governors Association (RGA), for which Christie is chairman for 2014.

On the Sunday talk shows this past weekend, top Republicans insisted they still back Christie. Republican governors too are publicly pledging their support. But as one Republican source told me: “It’s not about who is saying that on the Sunday shows. It is about who is not, and who is not saying anything.” This person added: “Everything could change in a heartbeat. There are a lot of close races. There is a lot at stake. There comes a point when this is about governors other than Chris Christie.”

Indeed, several Republican fundraisers and strategists who have worked closely with the RGA, have told me that many of them are privately worried that Christie’s controversies are only going to get worse over time and he is going to harm the electoral chance of his fellow Republican governors. They fear, as one puts it, that the embattled Christie’s alignment with the RGA “will bring down the Republican party with him.”

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Christie and his top advisers had high hopes for his chairing the RGA, the national fundraising committee to elect Republican governors, hoping, in the words of one senior Republican political operative, that Christie could “make himself the public face of the Republican party—just before making a presidential run.”

Through his RGA position, Christie would be able to crisscross the country fundraising and campaigning for Republican gubernatorial candidates, all but running for President without appearing to.

The role also means he has a hand in doling out at least $50 million in campaign money to some 36 Republicans running for governor—just two years before the next election. The hope, of course, is that governors in crucial Republican presidential primary states will remember his largesse come his own potential presidential campaign.

Chairing the RGA has proven competitive advantages for prospective presidential candidates. Mitt Romney held the post in 2006, as he waited for a second run for the presidency. Texas governor Rick Perry twice served as the chairman. Ronald Reagan long ago had the job while governor of California.

Governors with presidential aspirations, almost routinely get a shot at the job. The RGA wants to give its governors an advantage over other possible Republican nominees, and virtually any mainstream candidate who is a governor and wants to run for president, is given a turn.

Katon Dawson, a former chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party, explained to me in an interview why ambitious governors who want to run for the presidency, endeavor to head the RGA beforehand: “You get to network with the elite fundraisers of the Republican party. You have a reason to talk to governors in other states virtually every day, governors in presidential primary states. You are raising money for them and helping them get elected and reelected and that is a big deal.”

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I wanted to speak with Dawson because last week he told Slate’s David Weigel that Christie might at some point consider his resigning his RGA chairmanship: “This all has the potential to affect the RGA and governor's races if it grows any more legs, like it has with the Hoboken mayor.”

Dawson pointed out that the governor of his own state, former South Carolina governor Mark Stanford, resigned his RGA chairmanship the day after admitting an extra-marital affair: “Now, nobody’s called for that from Christie. But if we’ve got two, three more scandals, that’s the concern I’ve got."

A senior Republican party strategist who shares Dawson’s views told me: “He [Christie] does what is best for him, not the party. We saw that with his convention speech. (Christie gave a speech less extolling Romney than himself, endlessly frustrating Mitt Romney’s aides.) We saw that with the storm. (Christie angered Romney supporters by so publicly identifying with President Obama during the cleanup.) Would he voluntarily leave the stage? He is not voluntarily going to do anything to help someone else if it hurts him.”

In close races, support from the Republican Governors’ Association can mean the difference between victory and defeat.

In 2006, for example, Rick Perry learned in the closing days of a gubernatorial reelection bid that the race was tighter than previously thought. Without a last-minute infusion of campaign funds, he might lose. As I wrote in this Reuters story, Perry turned to the RGA and its then-chairman, Mitt Romney, for help. The RGA and Romney came through, facilitating a $1 million campaign contribution in the campaign’s final days.

Chris Christie too has credited the RGA and its then-chairman, former Mississippi governor Haley Barbour, with helping him win his first term as governor of New Jersey in 2009. Christie was challenging an incumbent—Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine - which is always difficult enough. On top of that Corzine was independently wealthy and had unlimited resources to spend on his own campaign. In the end, Christie won, but did not even win a plurality of the vote. Christie defeated Corzine with only 48.5% to $44.9 (An independent candidate garnered 5.8%).

Before and after his term as governor, Barbour was a successful lobbyist. Barbour recommended a client of his lobbying firm, a Florida-based debris removal company, AshBritt, for a New Jersey state contract to help clean up the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina. The Christie administration awarded the company a no-bid contract. Barbour later said he talked to Christie personally about hiring AshBritt. Competing firms later cried foul. Christie denied that he displayed any favoritism towards the firm.

There are other advantages to heading the RGA as a potential presidential candidate besides dispensing money to governors who will then forever be in your debt.

Many 2014 gubernatorial races are conveniently held in crucial early presidential primary states such as Iowa and South Carolina. A governor would have to both stump and fundraise for candidates in those states. A presidential candidate will be able to campaign for almost two years early without appearing to do so.

“If you play your cards right, you can use the RGA to make yourself the public face of the Republican party - just before making a run,” a longtime Republican strategist told me.

“As governor, if you look at where he campaigned, it was in places that served his own ends,” says Brigid Harrison, a professor of political science at New Jersey’s Montclair University, “In California, he campaigned for Meg Whitman. He wants a chit to call in with her. He wants to have her financial backing and political clout.

“He will use his tenure not just to elect Republican governors, but as an opportunist to create situations where he will be able to aggressively pursue political debts from those he helped. His leadership style has been trading on his own persona, being a political tour de force, and if he can be useful to candidates running for office, he will aggressively remind them later when the shoe is on the other foot. He is going to call in every chit.”

Currently, Christie has an ambitious schedule that will take him to Utah, Illinois, Texas, Georgia, Massachusetts and Connecticut on behalf of Republican gubernatorial candidates. So far, those candidates are still welcoming him warmly, if cautiously. For his part, Christie is unlikely to cancel events given the message of uncertainty that would send to the public.

The stakes are as high as can be for the Republicans this election cycle. There are twenty nine Republican governors. Twenty two of them are facing re-election with democrats currently favored to pick up several seats. Tea Party Republican Gov. Paul LePage of Maine is immensely unpopular, and faces a tight three-way race. Florida governor Rick Scott, whom Christie just raised money for, faces a stiff challenge from former Republican governor Charlie Crist, who is now running as a Democrat. In the key state of Pennsylvania, Republican governor Tom Corbett is immensely unpopular.

As things currently stand, the RGA has about $50.3 million on hand. The Democrats by comparison have a paltry $28 million. The RGA has a substantial lead over its Democratic counterparts when it comes to corporate contributions. Corporations are also banned from giving directly to federal candidates, such as those running for Congress or the presidency. Many states have looser restrictions when it comes to gubernatorial races. Corporations, which favor Republicans over Democrats, use the RGA to influence the outcome of gubernatorial races. WellPoint, the nation’s largest health insurance company, as one example, gave the RGA a half million dollars last year.

There may be coming point, though, where the benefit of the RGA chair’s backing – and the money that brings - is outweighed by the risks of being publicly associated with a potentially disgraced governor. According to Harrison and others, corporations are those that are likely to grow more skittish if the scandal around Christie becomes worse.

“It seems to be that on the one hand Christie has generated enormous loyalty from some of his backers and those are among the wealthiest donors,” says Harrison.“But corporations might shy away from contributing. They might want to get linked by association to any form of scandal.”

As a former Morris County freeholder and as governor of New Jersey, Christie has dispensed favors, patronage, and campaign money with the expert skills of an old school machine alderman or ward leader.

Will Christie take that culture to the RGA? Christie only recently became the chairman of the association.

“But we already have seen him [Christie] as vice chairman. We know his record as governor,” says  Harrison, “Contracts that have been awarded within the state after companies contributed or subsequently contributed.” She adds: “The concept of pay to play is very much alive.”

A senior staffer who works for another national fundraising committee told me: “This type of thing did not start with Christie and will not end when he is gone. People give to the RGA and the DGA [Democratic Governors Association] and other committees to gain access and an edge. It happens all the time. Nobody pays attention. The difference now is there is more scrutiny. Christie is under a microscope—and what goes unnoticed is going to instead be magnified, and become part of a narrative: Republicans—Republican governors do this.”

Christie’s first trip after his staff’s role in the bridge lane closings was disclosed was to Florida to raise money for Governor Rick Scott. But instead of generating positive local press coverage, the press focused on Christie’s ethical problems. At least some if not all of the money he raised for Scott on the trip may have been offset by the bad publicity Christie brought from out of state.

So far, no Republican governors have called for Christie’s resignation. Only former Virginia Republican gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli has said it makes “sense for [Christie] to step aside” from his chairmanship of the RGA. The RGA was large reason Cuccinelli fought a competitive race, giving him $8 million. Christie personally raised a good bit of that.

Although Christie raised money for Cuccinelli, he refused to go campaign for him in Virginia. Cuccinelli was seen as a tea party candidate, and would have tarnished Christie as MSBC’s favorite moderate Republican, a relationship that has since ended in an acrimonious divorce.

Never missing an opportunity to attack, Christie aides fired back by painting Cuccinelli as an ingrate: ‘This is disappointing, given the RGA was by far the largest single donor to his losing campaign, giving more than $8 million—a significant portion of which was raised by Gov. Christie,” Mike DuHaime, Christie’s chief political strategist told the press. Christie’s aides privately told reporters that Cuccinelli was still bitter about Christie’s refusal to campaign for him.

Although little noticed, the Newark Star-Ledger has editorialized for Christie to step down as head of the RGA as well. The paper wrote:

Chris Christie is fresh off a fundraising trip to Florida as head of the Republican Governors Association, and is now scheduled to travel to Utah, Illinois, Texas, Georgia, Massachusetts and Connecticut.

During those trips, the business of running the state of New Jersey will take a back seat. And no doubt there will be many more trips when these are done.

This is great for Christie’s career, but terrible for New Jersey. Given that, he should step down.

He won’t take this advice, because running the RGA allows him to raise tons of money that he can use to win new friends. Stepping down would deal another blow to his battered hopes for a presidential run in 2016… Dawson, Cuccinnelli, and the Star Ledger might be in the minority so far in publicly voicing such opinions, but privately the murmerings are getting louder. “People are sticking tight for now, but his support among some folks is a mile wide but an inch deep,” a senior Republican operative told me.

A spokesman for the RGA, Jon Thompson, said in response to this story: "Governor Christie is a very effective leader and fundraiser for the RGA, and as many of our governors and donors have confirmed, he is an extreme asset to the organization."

Paul Munisteri, the chairman of the Texas Republican party, counts himself as a strong Christie backer. But even he told me today: “If it turns out that conclusive evidence comes to light that he knew in advance that the lane clotures [on the George Washington bridge] were done for political reasons, that would surely put his position in jeopardy. I do not know that is the case and I would be surprised if that was the case. But people would change their minds.”

And other prominent Republicans may have a even lower threshold: just one more serious revelation about Christie’s behavior in office could very well prove a bridge too far for Republicans - and maybe even a permanent roadblock for his presidential ambitions. ...

Murray Waas has worked as an investigative correspondent for Reuters, and was previously investigative editor for National Journal. He was finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for national reporting in 1993.

[Photo credit: Gabe Skidmore (Creative Commons)]