Chris Christie lures big donors as he takes on Trump, while billionaire ally Cohen sits out

Key Points
  • Chris Christie is receiving a wave of big money support as he takes on Donald Trump and a crowded GOP field for the 2024 presidential primary.
  • Motorola Solutions CEO Greg Brown and former Trump U.S. ambassador to Italy Lewis Eisenberg are among those fundraising for Christie.
  • Yet billionaire Mets owner, hedge fund titan and Christie ally Steve Cohen is sitting out the GOP primary for now.

In this article

Former NJ Gov. Chris Christie: A lot of Donald Trump's backers are with us now
Former NJ Gov. Chris Christie: A lot of Donald Trump's backers are with us now

As New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie prepared to run for president earlier this year, he canvassed some of Wall Street's wealthiest donors about whether they would finance a $100 million effort to take on former President Donald Trump, according to a person who heard directly from the GOP candidate.

Since those calls, several business titans have piled cash into Christie's young campaign for the Republican nomination, with one big exception: longtime Christie ally, Mets owner and hedge fund billionaire Steve Cohen, according to GOP fundraisers, party donors and a person close to the businessman.

A person close to Cohen told CNBC that Cohen has yet to donate to either Christie's campaign or the allied super PAC called Tell It Like It Is. This person, like several others cited in this story, declined to be named in order to speak about private matters.

Cohen has no immediate plans to help Christie or get involved with the GOP primary at large, but his intentions could always change, this person added. Wall Street executive and former Trump communications director Anthony Scaramucci previously told Semafor he expected Cohen to support Christie. Scaramucci, who, like Christie, has become one of Trump's biggest critics on the right, has said he is backing the former New Jersey governor.

During an interview with CNBC's "Squawk Box" on Tuesday, Christie teased that prominent people are supporting him. But he did not name them.

"I wouldn't have gotten into the race unless I had some very significant people," he said. "But I think what you're going to find a lot of people who were with Donald Trump before are now with us. Some folks who were other candidates in 2016, like Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio are now with us," he added.

A spokesman for the Christie campaign did not return a request for comment. Colin Reed, a spokesman for the Christie super PAC, would not say who has donated to the group so far and only described the funding support as "overwhelming."

"In the two weeks since Gov. Christie announced his candidacy, the support for Tell It Like It Is has been overwhelming," Reed told CNBC in an emailed statement. "We'll have more to say about our financial support in due time, whether it's from long-standing friendships like Mr. Cohen or anyone else drawn to the governor's message of moving the Republican Party forward and defeating Joe Biden."

Despite Trump leading in the polls, many of the party's top financiers are not getting behind the former president and are looking for an alternative to lead the Republican ticket. Blackstone CEO Steve Schwarzman and businessman Andy Sabin have said they won't back Trump at least during the 2024 primary for president.

Cohen and his wife, Alexandra, contributed just over $5 million during the 2016 election to America Leads, a super PAC that backed Christie's failed run for president in 2016, according to data from the nonpartisan OpenSecrets. The data also shows that Cohen later contributed $1 million toward Trump's inaugural celebration — at a time when Christie also publicly supported Trump. Christie and his family have been close to Cohen for years, and the former governor currently serves as a member of the Mets board of directors.

Steven "Steve" Cohen, chairman and chief executive officer of SAC Capital Advisors LP, third from left, and Chris Christie, governor of New Jersey, second from left, applaud during the Robin Hood Foundation Gala in New York, on Monday, May 14, 2012.
Amanda Gordon | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Without Cohen's support, Christie, who has formed relationships with many sections of corporate America since his days as governor of the Garden State, has turned to other wealthy donors to help finance his campaign for president.

RXR Realty CEO Scott Rechler, Motorola Solutions CEO Greg Brown, veteran lobbyist David Tamasi, former Trump U.S. ambassador to Italy and hedge fund co-founder Lewis Eisneberg, and former Northern Virginia Technology Council CEO Bobbie Kilberg have given money to support Christie this time, according to people familiar with the matter. Kilberg was also an advisor to Presidents Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush.

Many of the financiers fundraising for Christie's campaign, including Kilberg and her husband, Bill Kilberg, who is a partner at legal juggernaut Gibson Dunn, have done so because they believe he is the only GOP candidate willing to directly take on Trump.

"My husband Bill and I both are supporting Chris Christie, have already been raising funds for him and will continue to do so," Kilberg said. "Our first focus is to help recruit 40,000 individual donors at any dollar amount in order to secure Chris a spot on the RNC debate stage. Then, in late September we will host a major fundraiser for him at our home. Why are we backing Chris? Because he is directly and forcefully taking  on Trump's candidacy as a threat to the rule of law and the future of our democracy."

OpenSecrets data show that Bill and Bobbie Kilberg donated toward Christie's 2016 run for president. Some of the other Christie fundraisers also backed the former governor when he ran in 2016.

Tamasi, for instance, fundraised for Christie, then helped Trump after Christie lost in the primary. Christie himself told CNBC on Tuesday that he too was close to Trump until Election Night in 2020, when the former president falsely claimed the election was stolen from him.

Before and since he entered the race for president, Christie has publicly ripped Trump, including during a CNN town hall where the former New Jersey governor called the former president "vengeful" and "angry," and accused him of "vanity run amok."

He ramped up his attacks on the former president after Trump's indictment earlier this month on 37 federal criminal counts related to his retention of hundreds of secret government documents. The judge in the case set a trial date of Aug. 14, just days before the first GOP debate, although it's likely the trial will face some delays.

Wall Street executives who are inclined to help Christie are following the same anti-Trump model as the Kilbergs and other executives from various industries

"At the moment what's occurring is all of the donors that want blood, that want somebody to take shots at Trump, are now starting to coalesce around Christie and that's most of the Wall Street crowd because they hate this guy," a veteran GOP fundraiser told CNBC.

A senior banking executive involved with Republican politics told CNBC that there has been a "helplessness" in the finance world about the expectation that Trump is on course to win the GOP primary again, but Christie gives them hope that a rival can at least wound him in the early stages of the 2024 election.

"There feels like a helplessness, and Christie gives them hope of being the only candidate who can punch the crap out of him but may not necessarily win," this banking executive said.

In order to qualify for the first GOP primary debate in August, Christie and the other candidates must pick up donations from at least 40,000 contributors and poll above 1% in three national polls or two national polls and a state poll.

A Morning Consult primary survey shows that Christie has 2% of support among potential Republican primary voters. Trump led the poll with 59% of support.

Christie has recently seen some good news in the polls. At least two surveys show the former governor gaining on Trump in the early primary state of New Hampshire.

The pro-Christie PAC recently launched its first television ad in New Hampshire, called "Qualified." In it, the ad shows Christie speaking to New Hampshire voters and ripping Trump with a message that he is no longer qualified to be president.