WASHINGTON Jan 16 The first real test of the
damage to Chris Christie's chances of being the Republican
nominee for president in 2016 from the "Bridgegate" scandal
could come during the next few days.
Christie is scheduled to attend a $1,000-per-ticket
reception for New Jersey Republican House candidate Steve
Lonegan on Thursday. He then will head to Florida for a series
of weekend events aimed at raising money for Republican Governor
Rick Scott's re-election campaign, plus a meeting with wealthy
Republican donors from all over the United States.
Interviews with a half-dozen Republican strategists, donors
and operatives indicate that if Christie is interested in a bid
for the White House, as many suspect, he has some work to do.
He needs to reassure big-money donors - even those who have
seen him as the party's best hope of winning the race to be
Democratic President Barack Obama's successor - that the scandal
in which his aides apparently created massive traffic jams to
get back at a Democratic politician in New Jersey will not grow
enough to destroy his prospects.
"Everyone is worried," Republican strategist Ford O'Connell
said. "But the donors are going to take a wait-and-see approach.
They're not cutting off the spigot yet."
The Florida events were planned before emails released last
week indicated that top Christie aides orchestrated lane
closures last September on a stretch of highway leading to the
George Washington Bridge, possibly to retaliate against the
Democratic mayor of nearby Fort Lee, New Jersey, who had
declined to endorse him in last year's gubernatorial elections.
Christie has said he did not know about his staff's role in
the lane closures before last week's revelations.
The traffic scandal heated up just as Christie's team was
starting to raise his profile as chairman of the Republican
Governors Association (RGA) and allow him to play a star-making
role in gathering money for candidates in the 2014 midterm
elections. The elections will decide 36 state governorships and
control of the U.S. Congress.
No individual candidate has publicly backed away from
fundraising with Christie, but Republican governors aside from
Scott have remained quiet about any plans to appear with him, in
effect distancing themselves from the "Bridgegate" scandal.
Many of Christie's most prominent financial backers have
also been largely silent since the scandal broke.
An exception has been Home Depot co-founder Ken Langone, who
told Politico that he approved of Christie's apologetic press
conference last week. On Wednesday, Langone told The Washington
Post that enthusiasm for Christie among major Republican donors
"has never wavered."
Other major backers of Christie, including New Jersey
businessman and philanthropist Woody Johnson, owner of the
National Football League's New York Jets, have mostly been
Christie - who raised more than $12 million last year in
easily winning re-election in the mostly Democratic state - is
regarded as a powerful fundraiser, thanks in part to his ties to
Wall Street as a former lobbyist for the securities industry. A
group of Republican donors, including Langone, unsuccessfully
tried to convince him to run for president in 2012.
"Donors really like Chris Christie, especially Wall Street
donors," Republican strategist and lobbyist John Feehery said.
But if the state and federal investigations into the traffic
scandal gain momentum, some Republican donors will look to
others to lead the party's fundraising this year and to be
contenders for the presidential nomination, Feehery said.
"If it turns out he's a huge big liar" about not knowing
about the lane-closure plan in advance, "that's when they find
somebody else" to follow, he said.
STANDING BEHIND CHRISTIE
As chairman of the RGA, Christie was planning to tour the
country raising money and campaigning for several of the 22
Republican governors up for re-election. It could give him a
platform to promote himself while gathering potential allies and
donors for a White House bid.
But one political casualty of the scandal was the staffer
who was expected to help turn Christie into a national
Last week, Christie dismissed aide Bill Stepien from the
RGA, where Stepien was expected to assist in building a national
network of political and financial support. Stepien, Christie's
former campaign manager, had worked at the RGA for less than one
month. Christie has not announced a replacement.
RGA spokesman Jon Thompson said the group is standing behind
"Governor Christie is a very effective fundraiser and leader
for the RGA and there's no doubt that will continue this year as
we aggressively focus on 36 gubernatorial elections," Thompson
Tim Pawlenty, a former Minnesota governor who briefly ran
for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012, played down
fears that the New Jersey scandal would seriously damage
Christie, who is well-liked by many in the party's establishment
but viewed as not conservative enough by many on the influential
far-right wing of the party.
"I know Chris Christie, and I would be astonished if there
were any evidence indicating he knew about these troubling
events" in advance, Pawlenty told Reuters. "I can't imagine that
he would have known and condoned these decisions and these
Meanwhile, as Democrats in New Jersey's legislature are
investigating the traffic scandal, Democratic strategists are
watching for clues that the governor's relationship with
Republican donors has changed.
"Donors are inherently risk-averse," said one Democratic
strategist with experience on two presidential campaigns. "When
things are going well, they're going really well. And when
they're not going well, they're nervous."