Gov. Chris Christie hits the road this weekend to headline private fundraisers in Florida, but the political crisis he leaves behind in New Jersey could still follow him south.
The Republican, viewed as a formidable potential presidential candidate in 2016, will likely face questions in closed-door sessions with Republicans in the Sunshine State.
He could face a crush of reporters, protesters or fans simply wanting to get a glimpse of the “hottest” politician in the country, whose administration is now embroiled in a scandal that could threaten his national ambitions.
When suggestions headed up in recent weeks that Christie aides may have orchestrated traffic gridlock around the George Washington Bridge in Fort Lee last year to punish that town’s mayor for not endorsing Christie, questions immediately surfaced about whether he would be a welcome endorsement and surrogate on the campaign trail for Republicans.
Early indications show the popular politician remains so within much of the GOP base. He apparently helped himself with a nearly two-hour news conference January 9 during which he denied any involvement in the controversy.
Republicans say, at least publicly, the firestorm hasn’t become a deal breaker for political donors — yet. But some are uncomfortable with all the bad publicity and what it could mean down the road for a man who tops polls of potential GOP White House hopefuls.
Novelty or support?
As planned, Christie will headline private fundraisers as chairman of the Republican Governors Association for incumbent Florida Gov. Rick Scott, who’s running for re-election this year.
The trip marks his first political foray since documents released earlier this month intensified scurtiny of the bridge scandal.
Ken Langone, a major GOP donor who’s hosting two donor outreach events for Christie in Palm Beach on Sunday, said he now has more people wanting to come to the event than he can accommodate. Since the scandal, his attendee list went from 200 to more than 500.
Donor outreach events are different than fundraisers; they introduce candidates or politicians to donors who can help that person in the future, rather than immediately raise money.
Asked whether guests may simply be wanting to check out the governor in the flesh while he’s enmeshed in controversy, Langone said “No.”
“These types of people are not voyeurs,” he said. “These are tough people - competitors who don’t like to sit on the sidelines.”
The Home Depot founder said potential donors have told him they were impressed by Christie’s decisiveness and candor at the Trenton news conference.
Bobbi Kilberg, a Republican bundler from Virginia, expressed optimism that Christie may “come out stronger,” predicting that “over time the Democrats will live to regret” some of the heavy focus they’ve been putting on controversy.
“Chris did everything he should have done,” Kilberg said, adding that he “took appropriate action” and “acted decisively.”
Donor comments indicate that perhaps Christie’s actions and statements in recent days have helped sandbag initial rising waters of uncertainty that threatened to flood the Republican base.
But as investigations continue, there’s still a strong dose of skepticism among some Republicans who may be wary of another shoe to drop in the Garden State scandal that has already led to people losing their jobs.
A top Republican fundraiser described a stronger sense of hesitation among some GOP bigwigs.
“It has caused a significant number of fundraisers to pull back,” the source said. “But they are not shopping for an alternative yet.”
For his Florida trip, Christie is scheduled to attend three closed fundraisers on Saturday – two for Scott, one for the RGA – in Ft. Lauderdale, West Palm and Orlando.
He was asked at his news conference whether the controversy would affect his role as chairman.
“It won’t affect my ability to work at the RGA at all, no,” he fired back.
More plans in the works
Christie is also set to travel in early February to Dallas and Houston for RGA finance events. He’ll go to Chicago for fundraisers in early February, as well, according to the organization.
Both states – Texas and Illinois – have competitive gubernatorial races.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Utah Gov. Gary Herbert told reporters Tuesday outside the White House they still had confidence in Christie’s leadership at the RGA.
“He was completely transparent and gave the public a chance to hear what he understood and what he knew,” said Walker, who also is considered a potential presidential candidate in 2016. “And assuming everything stays as he’s announced, I don’t see that being a problem going forward.”
Herbert, too, expressed faith in Christie’s position as head of the RGA, a highly visible post that past governors have used as a launching pad for higher office.
“I think Chris has been a great leader for New Jersey,” Herbert told reporters, adding that it was possible more details could emerge in the bridge scandal. “I think we need to let that play out, but this is one Republican governor that supports Chris Christie as chairman of our RGA.”
CNN’s Ashley Killough, Dana Bash, John King, Kevin Bohn, Peter Hamby, and Rachel Streitfeld contributed to this report.