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Sympathy points? Despite 'Bridgegate,' Christie rakes in cash

Christie’s popularity may be taking a hit since so-called 'Bridgegate' but he led the Republican Governors Association to hit a fundraising record. What gives?
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie speaks to the Economic Club of Chicago on Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2014 in Chicago.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie speaks to the Economic Club of Chicago on Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2014 in Chicago.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s popularity may be taking a hit in the wake of "Bridgegate," but that didn't stop him from leading the Republican Governors Association to a fundraising record in January.

The RGA, which Christie chairs, announced that it raised $6 million in January, even as accusations that the governor’s office abused its power piled up. On top of that, the governor traveled to Texas on behalf of the RGA last week, raking in $1.5 million, plus another $1 million during a fundraising swing in Chicago on Tuesday.

RGA spokeswoman Gail Gitcho told msnbc that the haul was thanks to “the help of Chairman Christie and all of our Republican governors,” adding that the cash pile was double what the association raised during any similar time period in the organization’s history.

Support for Christie – once seen as a potential 2016 frontrunner – has tumbled since revelations that some of his top staffers were caught as the architects behind the political scheme to shutter a few lanes on the George Washington Bridge. A recent Wall Street Journal/NBC poll found more Americans view the Republican negatively than positively, by a 29% to 22% margin. It’s a big reversal from October, when 33% viewed him positively versus 17% who viewed him negatively.

Meanwhile, a Rasmussen survey showed that 54% of New Jersey voters believe it’s “at least somewhat likely” that Christie was aware of the lane closures -- something he has steadfastly denied. And the majority – 56%– said Christie should resign as head of their state if it turns out Christie knew about the plan beforehand. 

So how has the RGA prospered while its leader floundered? It may be in part due to conservatives rallying around Christie to rescue the bruised reputation of the man many considered the party’s best hope of winning the White House in 2016.

“The trouble that Christie has been having is being perceived by Republicans and more conservative elements in the country as an unfair attack of piling on…He’s turning adversity into an advantage,” said Joseph Marbach, provost of LaSalle University and longtime New Jersey political analyst.

He added: "It really may end up rallying the hardcore, Republican conservative base that at this point looked at him as a questionable candidate [in 2016]."

Nicole Wallace, a former  communications chief for President George W. Bush and former adviser to John McCain and Sarah Palin in 2008, said on MSNBC's Morning Joe that the impressive fundraising demonstrates that the lane closure scheme “has not affected the things the Republicans like about him. It has affected the way he’s viewed by the mainstream media and the progressive left media.” Wallace added that if Christie decides not to run in 2016, it will have “nothing to do with Bridgegate.”

Republican strategist John Feehery said that while the lane closures certainly isn't helping Christie, it has allowed him "to become a much bigger figure nationally and that has made him more interesting to people and they want to see what he has to say." Feehery added, however, that if evidence emerges that Christie did order the lane closures "he's in big trouble."

Some conservatives, including former Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, have called on Christie to step down as the chairman of the  RGA in light of his troubles. MSNBC host Joe Scarborough also said Christie has become a “distraction” for the RGA, whose goal is to elect GOP gubernatorial candidates and reelect incumbent governors.

But many are indeed rallying around the governor. Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin told ABC’s This Week that “all we know is one person’s word against another.” Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal said on CNN’s State of the Union that Christie should keep his coveted position as chairman of the Republican Governor’s Association. And former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani criticized the Democratic “pile on” against Christie.

Other big name GOP donors and erstwhile Christie backers, however, have largely stayed mum since revelations of the lane closure plan. Several declined to weigh in or did not respond to requests for comment. One exception includes Ken Langone, the co-founder of Home Depot. Langone told Politico that he approves of the governor’s response to Bridgegate. “The thing that impresses me is he made damn certain the world knows he doesn’t want anyone around him who [engages in] that kind of behavior.”

Monmouth University pollster and political analyst Patrick Murray said donors are remaining quiet because “we don’t know which direction this investigation is going to go.” Murray added: “If they defend [Christie] now and it turns out he did something wrong or his career’s at an end, it could taint them…They’re waiting to see what the best bet is going to be for them to have influence and access down the line.” 

Michael Czin, press secretary for the Democratic National Committee, said the RGA’s fundraising haul merely demonstrates that the GOP is “doubling down on how Christie got things done” by means of “retribution” and “intimidation.” Czin added: “Republican governors and Republicans as a whole have elevated Christie’s brand of leadership as the model they want to follow.”

A total of 38 subpoenas have been issued  to Christie’s staff and members of the Port Authority by the joint panel of the New Jersey state legislature looking into the lane closures. He’s also being probed for the possible misuse of Hurricane Sandy relief funds.

The governor is forging on with plans to fundraise on behalf of the RGA in the coming weeks and months, including in Massachusetts, Utah, George, Connecticut and Michigan. A scheduled meeting scheduled for Thursday, his since the bridge controversy, was postponed due to weather.