By Michael Linhorst, The Record (Hackensack, N.J.)
DALLAS — There were no public events. There were no public statements. There wasn’t even a list of people he met with or how much money he raised.
This was the life of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, chairman of the Republican Governors Association, on Thursday as he made his second fundraising trip since the George Washington Bridge scandal became national news.
The itinerary for his one-day trip to Texas was kept so private that the chairman of the Republican Party of Texas didn’t learn of Christie’s visit until he heard about it from reporters.
But Democrats tried their best to direct a spotlight squarely on the beleaguered New Jersey governor.
“It’s significant that he had the audacity to come to Texas to raise money … when he is embroiled in this scandal that is contrary to everything that we believe elected officials should stand for,” said Gilberto Hinojosa, chairman of the Texas Democratic Party.
The scandal centers on the lane closures in September at the George Washington Bridge, which created huge traffic jams in Fort Lee. Christie insists he knew nothing about them. Subpoenaed documents show one of Christie’s top aides ordered the closures, apparently for political retribution against the town’s Democratic mayor.
Hinojosa and local Democrats held a news conference Thursday in a Dallas union hall. It was promoted by the Democratic National Committee, which vows to follow Christie as he raises money across the country.
“Chris Christie should be answering questions honestly and cleaning up the mess of his bridge scandal in New Jersey, but instead he’s heading to Texas, Illinois, Georgia and more to raise money and campaign for Republican governors,” said Ian Sams, a spokesman for the DNC. “His scandal has become a liability for both Christie and the Republicans he’s working to elect, and we’ll be sure to highlight that fact across the country.”
The DNC’s chairwoman, U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, held a news conference three weeks ago in her home state, when Christie traveled there to raise money and huddle with top supporters.
But perhaps more significant than the hounding by Democrats on Thursday was the reaction of top Texas Republicans to the visit by Christie, who is expected to run for president in 2016.
“I think Governor Christie has a very, very uphill battle here to be competitive,” said Steve Munisteri, chairman of the Republican Party of Texas.
Munisteri said he was not aware of Christie’s Texas trip until reporters began calling him earlier this week. “When you don’t even let the state party know you’re coming in,” Munisteri said, “I don’t think you’re trying to build bridges with the grass-roots or activist base.”
Christie met with small groups of donors in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. His office directed questions about the trip to the RGA, which declined to say who was meeting with the governor or how much money was raised. “RGA chairmen typically hold smaller gatherings and meetings to fund-raise in the states, without candidates, before the primaries occur or when it is still early in the election year,” said RGA spokesman Jon Thompson. “The events are designed this way to encourage fundraising and maximize the use of the chairman’s time.”
David Barton, a conservative activist based near Fort Worth, said Christie’s trip was being kept “unusually quiet.”
“And so I’m reading into that that they’re very, very guarded and very selective,” he said.
Neither Texas’ Republican governor, Rick Perry, nor the leading Republican candidate in this year’s gubernatorial election, Greg Abbott, were scheduled to meet with Christie.
It’s common for RGA leaders like Christie to avoid meeting with candidates until Republican primaries are completed. David Carney, an adviser to Abbott, said the campaign had been talking with the RGA about Christie doing a fundraiser in the spring, but he knew no details about the events this week.
Even so, Democrats jumped on the absence of Perry and Abbott as an indication that Republicans outside New Jersey are afraid to be seen with Christie.
“I don’t think that Rick Perry and Greg Abbott are within 500 miles of Dallas right now,” Hinojosa said. “It tells you how other leaders in his party feel about him. He’s toxic right now and will remain toxic, in my opinion, until he has answered the difficult questions that need to be answered in New Jersey.”
Texas was a logical destination for a fundraising trip for Christie: The state is home to some of the RGA’s biggest donors.
Individuals and companies in Texas gave more than $6.4 million to the RGA last year, including $1 million each from home builder Bob Perry, who died last April, and the holding company Contran Corp., according to disclosures filed with the Internal Revenue Service.
And that total was given in a year when the only Republican candidates running for governor nationwide were Christie in New Jersey and Ken Cuccinelli in Virginia.
With Christie keeping such a low profile on his trip to Texas, GOP leaders raised doubts about his chances in the state’s 2016 presidential primary.
“He already was not a front-runner for 2016 among the activist base in the state. And the current controversy, obviously, does not help with that,” Munisteri said, adding that Christie does have “substantial support” among donors. “I’m not sure he’s got Texas as a target state where he expects to do well in 2016.”
AFP Photo/Eric Thayer