CHICAGO – Where just months ago Republicans brimmed with pride over Chris Christie's landslide re-election, doubts about his prospects as a potential presidential candidate have begun creeping into the minds of some donors in key states, according to some GOP fundraisers.
The celebrity New Jersey governor is in Chicago Tuesday to raise money for the Republican Governors Association that he chairs. While Christie gets credit for helping raise millions of dollars to help hold the GOP's edge in governorships this fall, what was supposed to be a re-election victory tour featuring him as a rising national leader has sparked a different conversation.
Ann Herberger, a national Republican fundraiser based in Florida, said Christie's robust persona and blunt style can pack a room. Some donors, however, have expressed reservations about his future because of the flap over the closure of two access lanes to the heavily traveled George Washington Bridge between New Jersey and Manhattan for four days last September.
Emails from a top political adviser and between a top Christie aide and a Port Authority official he appointed cast the traffic-snarling lane closures as retaliation for a local mayor's decision not to endorse Christie's re-election. Christie fired the aide and his political adviser but has denied authorizing or knowing about the scheme until the emails became public last month.
"There are influential donors who are giving him a second and third look," Herberger said of Christie. "Where they would have been 'this is the guy' two months ago, I think a lot of people are giving him a second look and keeping their powder dry."
"But that could change, too," said Herberger. "There's so much time between now and the primaries."
Herberger is a longtime fundraiser for former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, another 2016 GOP presidential prospect. While her comments echoed those of some fundraisers in a handful of battleground states, far more Republican donors and officials are publicly withholding judgment on Christie until it's clear whether his adamant denial of involvement in the lane closures withstands scrutiny.
If it does, he survives as a 2016 prospect. If it doesn't, he's finished, his most vocal advocates agree. Christie has said he won't decide for another year whether to run for president.
"I'm just not seeing" donor apprehension, said Phil Cox, executive director of the Republican Governors Association. "We're off to a historically strong start."
Christie's political future aside, the RGA has raised $15 million since December, when Christie became its chairman, said Gail Gitcho, the association's communication director. That includes $6 million in January, when internal state email about the traffic scandal was becoming public.
Still, there was no escaping the questions hanging over the 2016 presidential prospect Tuesday. In New Jersey, Christie representatives were scheduled to ask state officials if his political fundraisers can raise extra money to pay for the requirements of complying with subpoenas related to the allegations that the George Washington Bridge traffic snarl was politically motivated.
Christie planned to attend a private Tuesday morning fundraiser for Illinois House Minority Leader Jim Durkin. He also scheduled an hourlong public appearance Tuesday before roughly 1,600 Chicago business elites and a full contingent of national press at the Economic Club of Chicago.
He planned to take prepared questions in a session moderated by Motorola Solutions CEO Greg Brown — his first public appearance since his two-hour news conference Jan. 9 on the traffic scandal. Private meetings in the afternoon with high-dollar donors were to be capped with a dinner at the home of billionaire couple Ken and Anne Griffin.
Democrats, meanwhile, have been busily trying to fan the flames of Christie's problems. "He needs to explain how such a culture could be created among his closest advisers that they would feel comfortable closing the busiest bridge in the world," former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland told The Associated Press in Chicago Tuesday. Strickland, who was dispatched to Chicago by the Democratic National Committee, also was quick to point out that Texas gubernatorial candidate Greg Abbott and GOP Gov. Rick Perry were absent from Christie's events in the state last week.
Christie got commitments of $1.5 million from donors in Texas, said Gitcho.
Christie remains a popular figure in segments of the national Republican donor base and among other GOP governors.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott joined Christie in Florida last week and Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett is welcoming his help. Both face tough fights this year for re-election. Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, viewed as a safe bet for re-election for now, also is standing by him.
"I think he deserves the benefit of the doubt, just like anyone else. Innocent until proven guilty," Branstad said last week.
John Rood, a top Florida GOP fundraiser, also defended Christie, saying hardball politics is a valued trait.
"You want a president who is strong, who will stand up to world leaders. Does that make him a bully? I don't know," said Rood. "There's a fine line in that range of personality."