Donors Weigh Jilting Christie for Jeb Bush

Michael Barbaro and Nicholas Confessore

Jeb Bush's increasingly serious and public examination of a run for president has shaken the ranks of establishment Republican donors and fund-raisers who had planned to back Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey in 2016, forcing many of them to rethink their allegiance to the embattled governor.

In private conversations that are now seeping into public view, some of them are signaling to Mr. Christie's camp that, should Mr. Bush enter the race, their first loyalty would be to him, not to Mr. Christie, according to interviews with more than two dozen of them.

Many of those who, because of geography and personal ties, were expected to line up behind Mr. Christie say they now feel torn. And it is clear that Mr. Christie's recent troubles, especially the George Washington Bridge scandal, are adding to the allure of Mr. Bush, a former Florida governor.

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Lawrence E. Bathgate II, a former finance chairman of the Republican National Committee and a major donor in New Jersey, said he dreaded the prospect of having to choose between the two men, calling it "a fraught decision."

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie
Andrew Harrer | Bloomberg | Getty Images

David V. Hedley, a former Wall Street executive and Republican fund-raiser in New Jersey, said he also felt tugged in two directions, conceding that "it's tough right now for me."

And Christine Todd Whitman, a former Republican governor of New Jersey, put it this way: "It would be awkward. It would be very awkward."

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Nowhere is the consternation greater than among the hundreds of top donors and so-called bundlers who cut their teeth on Bush family political campaigns. If Mr. Bush runs, they must choose between bucking their ties to the first family of Republican politics or turning their back on Mr. Christie, who does not take well to disloyalty.

"Those of us that have been dedicated to the Bush family for years would obviously have to take a Jeb candidacy into extremely serious consideration," said Fred S. Zeidman, a Texas businessman and top fund-raiser for George W. Bush's two presidential campaigns who has helped introduce Mr. Christie to potential supporters in his state.

Mr. Christie and Mr. Bush have not officially declared their intentions for 2016. Mr. Christie's advisers say his political focus this year remains on leading the Republican Governors Association, which has broken fund-raising records during Mr. Christie's tenure as chairman, which began in November.

The presidential chatter is "irrelevant to us," said William J. Palatucci, Mr. Christie's top adviser and a former law partner. "You know it's out there, but it's just not part of our conversation."

Mr. Bush's public flirtation with a White House bid, however, has interrupted Mr. Christie's carefully honed plan to rebuild the faith of donors shaken by a series of high-profile controversies and resignations within his administration.

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Until Mr. Bush emerged as a potential 2016 contender, these donors said, they had no real alternative but to hope for Mr. Christie's rehabilitation.

"They feel good about Jeb," said Barry Wynn, a fund-raiser for George W. Bush and a former chairman of the Republican Party in South Carolina. "They don't have any questions about his integrity."

The family name, he said, remains a powerful draw. "They love the Bush family," Mr. Wynn said. "They love the whole package, and they feel Jeb is just a part of the package."

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In interviews, a number of the donors and fund-raisers acknowledged that the interest in Mr. Bush was a measure of the creeping doubts about Mr. Christie's ability to either fully rebound from his troubles or to win over conservative skeptics to secure the Republican nomination.

"I don't know that Chris will be there at the end of the day," said Ms. Whitman, who has previously endorsed Mr. Christie for governor and has donated to his campaign.

Gauging the softening of Mr. Christie's support among Republican donors is difficult: He is now raising money almost exclusively for Republican governors who are up for re-election, not for himself.

Still, some donors acknowledged that the qualities that made Mr. Christie seem special were equally present in Mr. Bush, who thrived in a politically diverse swing state and has forcefully challenged Republican orthodoxy on immigration and education.

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At risk for Mr. Christie is not just the electoral affections of Bush loyalists, but also the backing of a still-potent national network of wealthy Republican donors and bundlers who propelled three Bushes to high office and who provided Mitt Romney with an overwhelming fund-raising advantage in 2012.

While many have retired from active politics, those who remain constitute a hyper-loyal and energetic band of brothers (and sisters). Many of them served as so-called Rangers and Pioneers within the vaunted hierarchy of Bush fund-raising, and went on to plum appointments and ambassadorships in George W. Bush's two administrations.

Even a decade later, former Rangers and Pioneers heavily populate the ranks of the party's elite bundlers, a group that the party's 2016 aspirants began courting almost before President Obama was inaugurated for his second term. Several said they would continue to evaluate the field — unless, that is, Mr. Bush steps in.

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"I have great affection for Christie," said Mel Sembler, a Florida real estate developer and Bush donor who is among the top Republican fund-raisers. "He's done an amazing job as a Republican governor in a Democratic state. But I have great loyalty to that family because they brought me into the political arena, and I'll be supporting Jeb Bush if he decides to run."

In a sign of how quickly the Bush world is coalescing around a Jeb Bush run, George W. Bush publicly encouraged him to enter the field in an interview with CNN on Thursday. "I hope Jeb runs," he said, adding playfully, "Hey, Jeb, if you need some advice, give me a call."

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Mr. Christie is intimately acquainted with the Bush Brigade, as its members call themselves: It gave him his start in national politics. Mr. Christie; his brother, Todd; and Mr. Palatucci were prodigious fund-raisers for George W. Bush. Mr. Bush went on to appoint Mr. Christie — a Bush Pioneer in 2000 — as the United States attorney for New Jersey, transforming him from a relatively obscure lawyer and failed local candidate into a high-profile corruption-fighting prosecutor.

Mr. Palatucci was among the Bush alumni who traveled to College Station, Tex., last month to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the first Bush presidency, a gathering where some attendees slyly addressed Jeb Bush as Mr. President.

A few months ago, few Republican donors foresaw ever having to choose between Mr. Bush and Mr. Christie. Mr. Bush seemed comfortably settled in his postgovernment career as a businessman and policy advocate, while Mr. Christie was coming off a resounding re-election victory.

Then came the lane closings at the George Washington Bridge, and the questions they have raised about the governor's temperament and management.

"Am I disappointed in some of the things that have happened? Absolutely," said Mr. Bathgate, a prominent lawyer in New Jersey and a George W. Bush fund-raiser who counts Mr. Christie and Jeb Bush as friends.

"Nobody is going to count anybody out or do anything to annoy a friend who is the governor of your state," he said.

Still, he added, "I could easily wind up in the Jeb column."

By Michael Barbaro and Nicholas Confessore of The New York Times