Could Chris Christie's Iowa Endorsements Be His Breakout Moment?

Image: Chris Christie, Jim Kersten, Mikel Derby, Denny Elwell and Bruce Rastetter
Republican presidential candidate, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie speaks during a news conference, Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2015, in Des Moines, Iowa. Looking on are supporters, from left, Jim Kersten, Mikel Derby, Denny Elwell and Bruce Rastetter. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)Charlie Neibergall / AP

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By Leigh Ann Caldwell and Danny Freeman

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has had a tough run so far. He has consistently polled towards the bottom of the pack, unable to break through the crowded field and live up to the star power his name once elicited, especially four years ago.

But on Tuesday, Christie received a shot of momentum.

After months of sitting on the sidelines, he received the endorsement of six wealthy Iowans. It’s significant because this group of donors tried really hard to convince Christie to jump in the presidential race in 2012, even chartering a jet to New Jersey for an intervention. But through the spring and the summer they were unwilling to back Christie – until now.

“We’ve known the governor five years plus so he’s not a new (entity) with us. We know the origin of the guy; we’ve been around him enough with his family, at the end of the day, he’s our best choice basically,” Dennis Elwell, one of the six who endorsed Christie, said.

Christie held a news conference in Des Moines to announce the endorsements. It’s not common to hold news conferences to announce when wealthy men get behind a candidate, but Christie is in a position where he needs to highlight any good news that comes his way.

Christie supporters say that the endorsements will help him both in the Hawkeye State, where he is polling in the low single digits, as well as nationally.

“The fact that those individuals are heavy weights in Iowa their support will certainly make a difference in Iowa,” Bobbie Kilberg, president of the Northern Virginia Technology Council and a Christie bundler, said. “And it sends an important signal to donors elsewhere in the country.”

Christie’s finance chairman, Ray Washburne, said that his job is to provide donors and potential donors with good news. He says this is a nugget.

“It’s a signal to people that he’s serious,” Washburne said. “It’s a long-term run and people wouldn’t be endorsing him now if they didn’t feel like he is in it to win it.”

But Iowans doubt that Christie’s latest support will have much of an impact in the caucuses.

David Oman, a former chief of staff to Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad who is tied to Jeb Bush’s campaign, said the endorsement “will be marginally helpful.”

“If you could ask five or six people to your campaign, would you do that? Of course,” he said. “They will probably scare up a little money.”

Craig Robinson, Editor of The Iowa Republican, was even less optimistic. He pointed to Iowa’s primary election process, which chooses its candidate in a caucus. He notes caucuses take a lot more to win than big checks.

“These guys don’t have any track record, they’re unproven when it comes to caucus campaign,” Robinson said. “The people who have the most influence in a caucus are those people who can get the most people to participate, not write checks. It’s all about how many people turn out for your candidate.”

But Matt Strawn, Republican strategist and former chairman of the Iowa Republican Party, said that Christie, who doesn't spend a lot of time in the state, has now proclaimed that he will compete in the caucuses, shows that the race among the establishment candidates is still open wide.

"It signals the ground has shifted in Iowa following Governor Walker’s exit from the race," Strawn said.

Christie’s supporters would agree. They said the endorsement is the latest in a recent string of good news for Christie.

Washburne said Christie saw his biggest fundraising week yet last week and that this week is likely to be just as good.

“We’re going to show very good numbers this quarter,” Washburne said, declining to give specifics.

Kilberg is co-hosting a fundraiser for Christie in Northern Virginia Tuesday evening, which is also on the eve of the last day of this quarter’s fundraising period. She said she’s not allowed to give specific numbers but that the fundraiser will “exceed our goal, and our goal was very ambitious.”

What’s changed? Washburne attributes the uptick in support to the good week to Christie’s “strong” debate performance two weeks ago and the fact that Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker dropped out of the race.

Washburne said that while Walker’s bundlers haven’t committed to go all in for Christie yet, he has received small donations – the $2,700 limit – from them.

Everyone talks about “who’s going to be the next guy to drop out,” he added.

And Christie supporters say it’s not going to be him. They say he’s run a frugal campaign and is raising what he needs to get through the first caucuses and primaries.