Christie Rollout Day Went Smoothly and Professionally

The governor showed off dominant NJ support -- but rest of rollout week looks a little shakier

Christie at his best -- surrounded by supporters and being himself.  The governor waves while announcing his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination at Livingston High School on June 30, 2015. (Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)
Christie at his best — surrounded by supporters and being himself. The governor waves while announcing his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination at Livingston High School on June 30, 2015. (Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)

Chris Christie’s announcement on Tuesday morning in his hometown of Livingston was professionally produced and competently handled. A polished website and an inspiring and beautifully produced “tell it like it is” video were rolled out, already netting over 50,000 views on YouTube. And all this was accompanied by dominating NJ GOP support, political and financial. However, it’s not announcement itself that tells the tale—it’s the rollout in the days that follow. And by that yardstick, things are off to a rougher beginning.

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The idea of a rollout is that a candidate is guaranteed a news cycle. So announcements that would ordinarily be ignored can be expected to generate publicity. That’s why campaigns announce important endorsers and major money commitments immediately following their official announcement. And Christie was no exception, appearing on Hannity Tuesday night.

But it didn’t go quite as well on either the endorsement or money front.

On the political side, the Christie campaign canceled a planned stop in New Hampshire to hop one state north and announce the endorsement of Maine Gov. Paul La Page, who became the first sitting GOP governor to endorse a candidate. That’s a big “get” in a state adjacent to the first-in-the-nation primary state. The problem is that La Page is so unpopular in his home state that he stands a decent chance of impeachment, mostly for threatening to defund a school that sought to hire a political rival.

The lack of out-of-state endorsements is conspicuous enough that in February National Journal actually ran an article about it. Headlined “The Governors Chris Christie Supported Aren’t Returning the Favor,” the story notes how Christie “raised record amounts for GOP candidates, but thus far, few are throwing in with his presidential bid.” That’s got to hurt, considering the miles Christie traveled as head of the RGA to help lead the GOP to a record number of governorships. And even the support the article does mention now has an unlucky asterisk. The most outspoken Christie fan quoted in the influential beltway magazine’s story was Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, whose spokesperson said, “Governor Hogan believes Governor Christie would make a terrific president, and has said that he would be willing to help Governor Christie in any way.” As yet, that hypothetical support hasn’t materialized into an actual endorsement. And sadly, Gov. Hogan announced last week that he is now dealing with, according to Politico, a “very advanced and very aggressive form of cancer that has spread throughout his body.”

This invitation to a June 24 fundraiser for Jeb Bush features surprising strength from New Jersey money people, including Woody Johnson, Joe Kyrillos and Scott Sobel.
This invitation to a June 24 fundraiser for Jeb Bush features surprising strength from New Jersey money people, including Woody Johnson, Joe Kyrillos, Hersh Kozlov and Scott Sobel.

On the money side, the results were also mixed. In this age, where a single donor can literally fund an entire “non-coordinated” air war for even a broke candidate, it has become a ritual for a campaign to promote its closeness to someone with the capacity to stroke a big check. Immediately after Marco Rubio’s announcement, the New York Times ran a lengthy profile of Florida car dealer (and former Eagles owner) Norman Braman, emphasizing his willingness to do whatever it takes to elect the young senator. After Ted Cruz announced, reclusive NY billionaire Robert Mercer emerged as the main donor to a Cruz-supporting Super PAC that has already raised staggering sums.  Foster Friess singlehandedly carried water for Rick Santorum in 2012, just as Sheldon Adelson bankrolled the lion’s share of the PAC supporting Newt Gingrich.

Yet on the very day that Christie announced his candidacy, his most prominent megabacker, Home Depot founder Ken Langone, actually distanced himself from the governor. Langone gave an interview to National Journal in which the magazine concluded “the biggest revelation was that Langone, 79, who has long been expected to be one of the chief underwriters of a Christie candidacy, is reluctant to invest huge sums of his own money in his favored candidate.” This disclosure was so surprising that the article was actually headlined in all caps “CHRIS CHRISTIE’S BIGGEST BACKER: ‘WOULD I WRITE A CHECK FOR $10 MILLION? NO'”

Following his speech, the Christie campaign released an overwhelming list of New Jersey endorsers. While lacking in the unanimous support Christie was able to command in 2012 when he decided to support Mitt Romney and every single GOPer of weight followed suit, the New Jersey political list was still impressive by any measure. It contained four NJ Congressmen (Frank LoBiondo, Tom MacArthur, Leonard Lance, and Rodney Frelinghuysen) the highest ranking Senator and Assemblymen (Tom Kean Jr and Jon Bramnick), all 21 county chairs, various high-ranking insiders (Lt. Gov. Guadagno, State Chairman Sam Raia, former Gov. DiFrancesco) and about a hundred freeholders, state senators and assembly members. It was a massive show of home-state political force.

PolitickerNJ has pointed out some of the absences, like former Christie mentor Gov. Kean and persistent Christie critics Mike Doherty and Michael Patrick Carroll, plus Congressmen Scott Garrett and Chris Smith. Most surprising of all on the MIA list is popular state Senator Joe Kyrillos from Monmouth County, who was the chairman of Christie’s 2009 race and a close personal friend of the governor but is now supporting Jeb Bush’s candidacy.

So despite this handful of defectors, political support for Christie was overwhelming. That’s perhaps to be expected for a sitting governor, who wields a lot of power over continuing operation of the state. Rumblings that Christie staffers were heavy handed in seeking endorsements—”it’s going to be a long two years if you don’t show up in Livingston”—have been percolating. But the other sitting governors like Scott Walker of Wisconsin and John Kasich of Ohio will probably produce similar support and similar rumors of arm-twisting if they formally enter the race.

The fundraising side leaves a somewhat foggier impression. For one thing, the effort is being chaired by two successful businessmendeveloper Jon Hanson from Far Hills and investor Finn Wentworth from Morris County. Hanson is a well-liked Christie confidante and an old hand at raising money for candidates, dating back to Gov. Kean. But as head of the Gaming, Sports and Entertainment Advisory Commission tasked with the impossible – fixing New Jersey’s failing sports and casino businesses – Hanson kind of has his hands full. Finn Wentworth is also a heavy hitter, having co-founded the YES Network and operating a huge portfolio of real estate. There are a few reliable standbys like Candy Straight, a classic New Jersey character who can sweep up cash from her networks on Wall Street and among Republican women.

Christie holds a town hall meeting at the American Legion Dupuis Cross Post 15 on July 2, 2015 in Ashland, New Hampshire. (Darren McCollester/Getty Images)
Christie holds a town hall meeting at the American Legion Dupuis Cross Post 15 on July 2, 2015 in Ashland, New Hampshire. (Darren McCollester/Getty Images)

The rest of the list is populated mainly by the same guys who are on the political part of the list – Ocean Co. Chairman George Gilmore and Essex County Sen. Kevin O’Toole, Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick. These guys are able fundraisers, no doubt. During Rudy’s campaign, we raised over $100,000 at Bramnick’s house for a fundraiser the candidate didn’t even attend — an impressive feat and Bramnick was not even Minority Leader then. The problem is that they all know the same people and have overlapping fundraising networks. There’s a surprising lack of both big name Jersey people and new heavy hitters recruited to the Christie side.

As PolitickerNJ’s sister site the Observer has been chronicling, major New Jersey fundraising names like Larry Bathgate, Gail Gordon, Woody Johnson and Hersh Kozlov have already defected to Jeb Bush. But Jeb has also shown surprising strength in cultivating new donors. A planned event in Short Hills on July 23 will be hosted by Bill Cohen and Larry Wieseneck – Barclays guys who are relatively new to the fundraising scene. And Jeb is not the only candidate nicking away at NJ money support. Scott Walker has nabbed at least a few Jersey money people and so has Marco Rubio.

While the political class acted almost unanimously in concert, the people who raise money seem eager to bet on a winner and perhaps position themselves for plum assignments and access should their guy take the White House. For the money people, the “fear factor” of abandoning the governor seems to have lessened.

The Observer reported that when it first started looking into New Jersey money people who were backing candidates other than Chris Christie, “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.”

For example, Cliff Sobel, the Short Hills businessman who served as President Bush’s ambassador to both the Netherlands and Brazil, has tried to be cute about who he’s backing. The Observer reported that Larry Bathgate said Sobel would be joining him in support of Jeb, telling the Observer “This is not just Larry and Cliff. There’s a ton of support.” Sobel wouldn’t confirm that. He promised to call the reporter back and never did. Then last week, Sobel showed up at a different fundraiser for Jeb in Manhattan at the Sheraton. But instead of listing his own name among the three dozen hosts, he listed his son Scott Sobel. If the wily ambassador expects that little maneuver to fool the Christie people, it’s a miracle the US didn’t go to war with Holland and Brazil.

Some commentators have pointed to the defection of key NJ GOPers this year as a sign of Christie’s diminished clout in state politics. After all, Christie was able to deliver the entire GOP fundraising structure in 2012 to Mitt Romney—who Christie strategist MIke DuHaime attacked as a “mediocre one-term governor”—in 2012 but now can’t even deliver the same to his own candidacy. So diminished state clout is certainly a possible explanation, but there are other plausible explanations.

For one, betting on Mitt in 2012 meant not just obeying the governor’s orders, but jumping on the frontrunner’s bandwagon –an easy position to take in politics. Disobeying Christie in 2012 meant getting grief from the guy who was likely going to be governor for another five years. And who was someone going to bet on — Herman Cain or Rick Santorum?

It’s different this year.

With a strong field and Christie nearing the end of his time as governor, it’s natural that New Jersey Republicans would consider other options.

Bottom line for rollout week: Chris Christie reminded Republican voters in New Jersey and beyond what they liked about him so much in 2012 – he speaks from the heart and has a strong, competent team. But the challenges facing him today on the political and fundraising fronts are daunting. The New Jersey support, especially on the political side, showed impressive strength. But whether that support can be extended to Republicans outside the Garden State remains a very open question.

Christie Rollout Day Went Smoothly and Professionally