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Water under the bridge? Big money haul keeps Christie’s leadership role at RGA safe

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Chris Christie, still one of the hottest names in the 2016 Republican presidential nomination chase, heads to Washington surprisingly secure in his job as New Jersey governor and in his post as chairman of the 29-member Republican Governors Association — despite the "Bridge-gate" scandal still unfolding back home.

There is not the ominously deafening silence from the party structure that often presages a politician, caught in the middle of a scandal, deciding it's time to throw himself under the bus for the good of the party.

"I think he's doing fine, but of course I'm not privy to all the details," former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, a former Republican Party chairman, told The Washington Times.

Mr. Christie will be in Washington for the National Governors Association annual gathering, which begins Friday, and for the subsequent meeting of the GOP chief executives.

A big reason Mr. Christie is hanging on despite a relentlessly bad press is that, in his job, money is the measure of the man.

"He's bringing in big money for the 36 governors elections this November, which is the job of an RGA chairman. So unless something surfaces to show he was directly involved in the bridge tie-up, Republicans aren't going to call for his resignation from RGA," former RGA Executive Director Clinton Key told The Times.

"He is clearly one of best communicators in our party," said RGA Executive Director Phil Cox. "He's raising money from new sources and places where we have never raised money before."

One of those "never before" places that Mr. Christie's in-your-face "Joisey" charm has turned into a financial honey pot for Republican governors lies across the Hudson River. In New York, donations of $250,000 a person have poured into the RGA's campaign account, fellow Republicans say.

As Mr. Christie prepares to ensconce himself temporarily in the nation's capital for the winter meetings of the NGA and the RGA next week, his fellow Republicans are of one mind on his "Bridge-gate" affliction. Since it broke out Jan. 8, they say, it has been distracting but not fatal. None of his fellow GOP governors has given the slightest hint publicly of wanting Mr. Christie to step down, nor is there back-channel gossip about trying to nudge him out.

The lack of talk about the scandal is significant in part because many of Mr. Christie's peers, including Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, all potential 2016 Republican presidential hopefuls, would benefit if the New Jersey governor fell from — or was pushed off — the list of leading candidates.

The only top-tier 2016 nomination possibility who has been noticeably lukewarm about Mr. Christie's role in "Bridge-gate" has been Sen. Rand Paul, Kentucky Republican.

"It's an unsettling charge. I don't know if it's true, but it's unsettling," Mr. Paul said this month.

Upside

On the upside for Mr. Christie, experienced Republican campaign helmsmen agree that even those not particularly enamored of Mr. Christie feel that he has given himself 9 feet of rope to hang himself politically. Any interference in the process is not worth the risk of a Christie retaliation or a loyalists' backlash.

Whatever the reason, each of Mr. Christie's potential 2016 rivals has explicitly patted the RGA skipper's back, even while he has been taking on water, with results of the latest investigation into his role in the scandal yet to come.

Mr. Perry and Mr. Walker are on the RGA's executive committee, and Mr. Jindal is the current RGA vice chairman and therefore is eligible for another turn as chairman after his initial term last year. Mr. Jindal has said explicitly that Mr. Christie should stay on as chairman.

Many Republican strategists are focusing early in the election cycle on independents — the swing voters who swung away from the party as part of the 2008 and 2012 presidential losses. Mr. Christie remains one of the strongest Republicans among independent voters.

In the latest CNN survey of Republicans and independents, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee led the theoretical field with 14 percent, with Mr. Paul second at 13 percent and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Mr. Christie tied at 10 percent each.

Although party operatives have an implicit obligation to speak well of troubled Republican politicians, such expressions of support are not much of a stretch in Mr. Christie's situation.

Mr. Cox noted that Mr. Christie and his fellow Republican governors raised $6 million for the RGA war chest in January — after "Bridge-gate" broke. The New Jersey governor returned from a recent Texas swing with an impressive $1.5 million haul for the RGA.

Republicans agree that the only thing that could lead the RGA chairman to step down would be the surfacing of indisputable evidence that he knew before or during the four-day traffic tie-up on the George Washington Bridge that it was meant as political payback for the local Democratic mayor. Unlike other big-name Democrats in the state, the mayor refused to endorse Mr. Christie's re-election in November.

One of his biggest selling points among Republicans looking for a winner in November 2016 is his demonstrated ability to attract independents and Democratic crossovers along with voters in his own party. Mr. Christie won a landslide re-election in November.

In theory, an RGA chairman has an advantage over potential rivals because he builds name recognition and collects political IOUs by traveling across the country to raise money for gubernatorial elections. Yet the number of governors who used the RGA chairmanship as a springboard to the presidency is few, but includes Ronald Reagan.

© Copyright 2014 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

About the Author
Ralph Z. Hallow

Ralph Z. Hallow

Chief political writer Ralph Z. Hallow served on the Chicago Tribune, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Washington Times editorial boards, was Ford Foundation Fellow in Urban Journalism at Northwestern University, resident at Columbia University Editorial-Page Editors Seminar and has filed from Berlin, Bonn, London, Paris, Geneva, Vienna, Amman, Beirut, Cairo, Damascus, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Belgrade, Bucharest, Panama and Guatemala.

 

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