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Why Chris Christie still has GOP donor appeal

Even as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s list of troubles grows, the resilient Republican continues to be one of his party's most reliable money men.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie addresses a gathering in Keansburg, N.J., Feb. 4, 2014.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie addresses a gathering in Keansburg, N.J., Feb. 4, 2014.

Even as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s list of troubles grows, the resilient Republican continues to be one of his party's most reliable money men.

On Tuesday, the same day Christie spoke at the National Republican Senatorial Committee winter retreat, the organization announced it raked in $4.6 million in January—its third best haul for the month in the past 10 years. Of course Christie didn't necessarily raise that sum by himself, but the fact that a cash-hauling group wants his help shows that he has real donor power.

At the event at New York City’s Harvard Club, Christie spoke to key GOP donors and lawmakers including Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell. An aide to the governor told msnbc that Christie “spoke about the importance of winning back the Senate majority this fall, and how the Republican Party can compete and win in all corners of this country, including blue states.”

But as the GOP tries to take back control of the upper chamber of Congress this year, is Christie – who faces inquiries for possibly knowing about his staffers' plan to shutter lanes on the George Washington Bridge, potentially for political payback – a liability? Republican donors and leaders don't seem to think so -- at least if his New York appearance is any indication.

“There’s still an appeal,” insisted Rob Jesmer, a former executive director of the NRSC. “Christie is still a very big draw among our donor base. Unless they find an email saying he shut down that bridge, he’s going to be a formidable person in our party for years to come.”

Ben Dworkin, the director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University, compared Christie to when The Beatles first showed up in America. “He doesn’t look like or talk like anyone else out there. And that makes him fascinating to a lot of donors and heavy hitters.”

Dworkin added that Christie’s reputation as a bully--especially against people and institutions Republican donors typically don’t like, including unions, the media and Democrats --is not such a bad thing. “If you’re a bully to them, that’s great. That’s only going to motivate these people to give,” he said.

The Republican Governor’s Association, which Christie chairs and has ambitiously been fundraising for, also announced this month that it set a monthly fundraising record -- $6 million – in January. But that certainly doesn’t mean that lawmakers are welcoming him with open arms, at least in public.

When Christie went to Dallas and Fort Worth earlier this month, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and likely GOP gubernatorial nominee Greg Abbott were nowhere to be seen. And when Christie traveled to Florida a few weeks ago for his first out-of-state trip since the lane closure plan became public, Sunshine State Gov. Rick Scott, who’s up for re-election, did not arrange any joint public appearances with his fellow Republican.

“People are okay meeting with him behind closed doors and raising money but will they appear with him in public in their home state?” asked Michael Czin, press secretary for the Democratic National Committee. “If that’s what motivates folks to give –someone who is mired week after week, month after month, I think it says something about the state of the GOP.”

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.”

Brook Hougesen, press secretary of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, dismissed concerns that Christie’s recent troubles could hurt him. “President Obama, Chuck Schumer, Bob Menendez and countless other prominent Democrats are facing major controversies--some of them legal in nature. Each spends an enormous amount of time raising money for the Democratic Senatorial Committee. Gov. Christie believes Republicans are going to win the Senate, we share that belief, and we are all in to win in 2014,” she said.

Since the lane closure plan was revealed, Christie’s team has been accused of misusing Hurricane Sandy relief funds and Democratic Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer has claimed her storm-torn city was denied Hurricane Sandy funds because she refused to support a prime real estate development.

And on Sunday, MNSBC’s Steve Kornacki reported that a man with long-time ties to Christie, Port Authority Police Lt. Thomas “Chip” Michaels, seemed to know of the pending lane closures before they happened.

Christie has denied having any involvement in the lane closure plans and has since fired a top aide. He is expected to face New Jersey residents at a town hall meeting in Middletown, N.J., on Thursday, the first he has held since questions arose about so-called “Bridgegate.” It was initially scheduled for Tuesday but was postponed due to inclement weather.

State Democrats questioned the governor’s priorities after he postponed the town hall meeting. “Gov. Christie believes skipping off to New York City to solicit funds takes precedence over accountability. His priorities are seriously out of whack," said New Jersey Democratic State Committee Chairman John Currie. "It’s clear what’s most important to Chris Christie is Chris Christie, not the welfare of New Jersey's middle class families.”