On Wednesday night, several dozen people with the means to attend an event so pricey its invitation doesn’t list an expected contribution will gather in the Park Avenue apartment of Henry and Marie-Josée Kravis to meet Jeb Bush and add to the quickly filling coffers of Right to Rise, the PAC set up to aid Mr. Bush’s presidential ambitions. The affair will be co-chaired by Mr. Kravis’ colleagues at KKR, including Ken Mehlman, who managed George W. Bush’s 2004 campaign and later became chairman of the Republican National Committee.
This is the second event Mr. Kravis, a coveted GOP donor who leads the storied leveraged buyout firm that bears his name, has hosted for Mr. Bush in a month. On the afternoon of January 8th, KKR hosted an event at its offices where the still undeclared candidate met with 80 supporters. The night before, Mr. Bush traveled to Greenwich, where an even larger crowd of 130 greeted the former Florida governor.
It’s no secret that Jeb Bush has been moving aggressively to vacuum up cash and secure support. These three events are part of that effort and the Observer’s cover story last week shared for the first time names of more than a dozen New Jersey and New York finance heavyweights who attended a fourth event – a January 8th dinner hosted by New Jersey lawyer and former RNC finance chief Larry Bathgate.
But it’s an event scheduled to take place this Thursday afternoon, February 12th, that might send the clearest signal yet of Jeb Bush’s dominance of the Republican establishment. According to two sources, including one inside the Bush organization, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger will be the star attraction at a lunch hosted by Right to Rise at which Mr. Bush will also appear.
In addition to bolstering Mr. Bush’s momentum, his strong push into the tri-state area will likely add to a developing narrative that Northeast Republicans are deserting New Jersey Governor Chris Christie just as he gears up to launch his own presidential bid.
According to Mr. Bathgate, in addition to the dozen New Jersey names detailed in the Observer’s article as having joined him for the Bush dinner, Cliff Sobel will now be aiding his efforts on behalf of electing Jeb Bush president, which will surely raise New Jersey eyebrows.
Mr. Sobel, who served as ambassador to The Netherlands and then to Brazil during the administration of George W. Bush, is one of the most sought-after fundraisers in New Jersey’s well-moneyed Republican circles, as reflected by those plum overseas assignments.
Reached by phone in England, where he was later having dinner with Prime Minister David Cameron, Mr. Bathgate discussed with the Observer the strength of the New Jersey coalition he’s assembling in support of Mr. Bush. “Cliff was away for my thing but Cliff promised to do his own thing. This is not just Larry and Cliff. There’s a ton of support.”
The trio of Mr. Sobel, a former ambassador to two sweet postings; Mr. Bathgate, a former RNC Finance Chairman; and Lew Eisenberg, the current RNC Finance Chairman, forms the “Big Three” of New Jersey’s Republican rainmakers. With Mr. Bathgate having already committed to Jeb Bush, the addition of Mr. Sobel represents a major coup for Mr. Bush’s campaign as it quickly takes shape. The Observer can also now report, for the first time, that Mr. Eisenberg attended the January 8th fundraiser for Mr. Bush held at KKR, where he was working until leaving a week later to accept the position at the RNC.
(Reached briefly on the phone in Brazil as he entered a dinner, Mr. Sobel could not free himself to discuss at the time. He was “with people.” He later emailed to say, “I will be in Brazil until the end of the week with a totally full agenda” but promised to get in touch. If and when he does, this story will be updated to include his perspective.)
For Mr. Christie, the defection of yet another Garden Stater is a serious setback. It also represents a further unwinding of the vice grip that Mr. Christie once exerted over his home state party. As recently as 2012, while Mr. Christie was deciding which GOP candidate to support for president, not a single player of weight was willing to defy the governor. The entire state party withheld its endorsement until the governor made his choice and then lined up behind him in support of Mitt Romney. That makes this recent show of independence all the more striking, especially considering the candidate that many are not choosing is the governor himself.
Christie Backers Fret About His Seriousness
One high-profile New York donor and experienced political veteran who has yet to commit to any 2016 candidate told the Observer, “Jeb is making more inroads than Christie. Christie is oddly taking a lot of people for granted. You know, Christie is the closest thing we have to a home-state governor in New York, so therefore Christie has a lot of relationships. He just assumes all these people who have been so supportive of him are going to be there for him in 2016. I just see no evidence of that. It’s not to say some won’t. Some will, but Jeb Bush is making huge inroads with a lot of them.”
This source says that foreign policy expertise is a major area of concern among Northeast donors, who tend not to be social conservatives.
“With the exception of Marco Rubio and maybe to some degree Ted Cruz, none of them have really spent a ton of time in foreign policy. I mean Rubio has an advantage; he’s on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he’s on the Intelligence Committee, so he’s in it in a way that the others aren’t. Then the next level down I would say Ted Cruz and Rand Paul who by virtue of their day jobs have to deal with this stuff all the time, and actually Cruz is on Armed Services and Rand is on Foreign Relations. But the governors have spent far too little time on this, and I think it’s very hard to start getting up to speed once you’re in cycle for the presidential. If you’re new to this stuff, the first time you really think about it cannot be when you’re busy schlepping back and forth to Iowa and trying to line up donors.”
That’s not to say the current and former governors taking a look at 2016 aren’t brushing up.
One source told the Observer that Dan Senor, the Elliott Management executive who was one of the foreign policy advisors in both Romney campaigns but has yet to select a candidate for 2016, recently gave Jeb Bush a copy of America in Retreat, signed by its author, Wall Street Journal scribe Bret Stephens, whose book release party was held in Mr. Senor’s Tribeca apartment last November. According to the source, Mr. Senor handed Mr. Bush the gift and Mr. Bush told Mr. Senor, “Oh, I’ve already read this book” and had something intelligent to say about how it lays out a thoughtful way for him to honor his brother’s foreign policy legacy but also draw some distance from it.
The other candidates are brushing up, as well. Mr. Christie talks regularly with Bob Zoellick, the former president of the World Bank and Deputy Secretary of State. Mr. Bush has consulted his brother’s Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice. Scott Walker stays in close touch with the co-writer of his book Unintimidated, Marc Thiessen, the conservative foreign policy columnist who was chief speechwriter to President George W. Bush and to Donald Rumsfeld.
According to one source who saw Mr. Christie speak at the American Enterprise Institute’s annual Sea Island event, the governor needs to keep studying. As was detailed in a brutal New York Times article, the governor was “wobbly” — “displaying little grasp of the facts and claiming that if he were in charge, Vladimir V. Putin, the Russian president, would know better than to mess with him. … One attendee described Mr. Christie’s answer as disturbingly heavy on swagger and light on substance. Another called it ‘uncomfortable to watch.'”
The source told the Observer, “Arthur Brooks was interviewing [Christie]. It was right as things were heating up with Russia and Ukraine and he had nothing to say. Like he didn’t know what he was talking about and then finally he said something like…it was so awkward and it’s documented in the the Times so you can read it, but he said something like ‘people around the world will know not to mess with me.’ I’m not exaggerating. It’s not that he hadn’t spent time with his advisors or tutors. He hadn’t even, like, read the newspaper. He didn’t even really know what was going on. Another time I saw him say, ‘Washington is dysfunctional. This is why we’re losing our stature in the world because Washington looks so dysfunctional but I’ve made New Jersey work. Look what I’ve done in Trenton,’ and that’s kind of like his foreign policy treatise. I mean it’s so ridiculous.”
So that’s the backdrop against which Jeb Bush’s apparent victory in the “Henry Kissinger sweepstakes” is a major win for the former Florida governor. And a major disappointment to the Christie camp, which has discussed how highly the governor values Mr. Kissinger’s counsel as he seeks to burnish his foreign policy bona fides.
In a story called “The Credentials Caucus,” the Washington Post reported last April that “to get schooled on foreign affairs, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has been consulting former secretaries of state Henry Kissinger and Condoleezza Rice.”
For his part, Mr. Kissinger has spoken optimistically in the past about the governor’s potential as a candidate. In summer 2013, the former Secretary of State to two presidents and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize told the National Review, “We’re friendly, and I think extremely highly of [Christie], and he knows I’d be delighted if he became a national candidate. Conservatives should recognize his long-term potential.” And in 2011, Mr. Kissinger even made a rare state-level fundraising appearance with the Governor, raising money for the NJGOP in a move widely seen as an act of friendship toward the New Jersey chief executive.
It’s unclear whether Mr. Kissinger has altered his view of Mr. Christie or if the master of Realpolitik simply views Mr. Bush as having the best chance at victory. At 91, Mr. Kissinger likely views this election as essential to his sunsetting legacy. (Mr. Kissinger did not respond to two phone calls and an email.)
Last week, when the Observer’s story on Chris Christie first started taking shape, those contacted about having attended the Jeb Bush dinner declined to comment or even requested that their attendance not be reported. By the time the article appeared, attendees were reaching out to the Observer to ask that their names be included. (The Observer updated its story twice to add names that trickled in after publication.)
To be sure, a dozen defections does not a revolt make. And Mr. Christie has demonstrated uncanny resiliency over his long career. But Mr. Christie’s fight was expected to be on less-friendly turf in the South and Midwest. As major players in New Jersey and New York continue to trickle into Mr. Bush’s column, Mr. Christie is discovering that bringing ambitious New Jersey political types to heel might not be as easy as ordering Sandy suntanners to get the hell off the beach.