TRENTON, N.J. — The same group that helped Chris Christie defeat a Democratic governor four years ago could now help him secure an even bigger prize: a presidential nomination.
Christie is scheduled to become chairman of the Republican Governors Association this month, a position that will connect him with more donors, voters and GOP campaign operations in key states.
This chairmanship is a hidden jewel in the benefits of Christie's landslide victory last week. As chairman, Christie gets to set the priorities for a group already credited with swaying elections in several states, and he will be part of the leadership team that decides how the organization spends its money. It raised $23.5 million during the first half of this year and ended that period with $37 million on hand.
As RGA chairman, Christie also will get to choose the states where he personally campaigns, picking up IOUs from governors who could be counted on to return the favor if he runs for president. And that campaigning would allow him to barnstorm selected parts of the country to spread his message that what the GOP needs is more pragmatism and less ideology.
"We are not a debating society," Christie told key Republican strategists meeting in Boston this past summer, according to an account in Time magazine. "We are a political operation that needs to win."
There are 36 gubernatorial contests next year and they include important states where Christie will need support as he maps out a plan to boost his already well-known brand in any effort to secure the GOP nomination for president in 2016.
If he's successful, the leadership position will allow Christie to strengthen the campaign and fundraising network he's already begun building across the country. He was one of the most sought after surrogates last year, visiting 26 states and the District of Columbia to raise money for GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney and congressional and gubernatorial candidates. And Christie has the support of deep-pocketed executives -- including Kenneth Langone, co-founder of The Home Depot.
And being chairman of the Republican Governors Association could also create inroads for Christie in states where he lacks connections.
"He can go into every state where there is a governor's election next year, either supporting the incumbent or the challenger, and he can pick up valuable political chips," said Edward Rendell, a former Pennsylvania governor who served on the executive committee of the Democratic Governors Association.
Christie said he would come up with a list of targeted states when the group convenes in Scottsdale, Ariz., on Nov. 20 and 21 to appoint him. But Christie cited Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida as big states where Republican governors are up for re-election. Christie said he plans to campaign for New Mexico Gov. Susanna Martinez, who campaigned with him in the Garden State before last week's election.
"My priorities are to re-elect Republican governors and elect new Republican governors and to raise the money that's going to be necessary to be able to influence that result," Christie said during an event in Union City the day after he won re-election.
The Republican Governors Association and its Democratic counterpart pull in millions of dollars annually from corporations, political groups and individuals across the country.
Conservative David Koch, a billionaire energy mogul who has been a Christie backer, gave $1 million to the Republican group this year. His company, Koch Industries, which he owns with his brother Charles, gave $25,000, according to IRS records. The brothers donate millions annually to Republican candidates and supported Romney last year.
Many businesses and CEOs donate to both the Republican and Democratic associations in the form of annual memberships that buy varying levels of access to the governors.
Last year, the Republican Governors Association -- while Christie was its vice chairman -- collected more than $700,000 from donors in New Jersey, including companies that would be barred from contributing directly to Christie under the state's campaign finance laws and firms helping the state recover from Superstorm Sandy.
Christie credits the association -- and specifically former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, who was chairman -- with helping him level the playing field and unseat Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine, who poured nearly $30 million of his own money into the 2009 race. They became friends and that relationship led to a fundraiser this year for Christie at the palatial home of Ed Rogers, a former White House staffer under President George H.W. Bush, who is chairman of Barbour's lobbying firm.
It was Barbour who suggested Christie hire AshBritt Inc., a Florida company, to remove debris after Superstorm Sandy. Barbour had used AshBritt after Hurricane Katrina devastated his state and his lobbying firm now counts the company as a client.
New Jersey's strict campaign finance laws cap contributions to individual candidates at $3,800, but independent groups like the governors associations can spend unlimited amounts advocating for a candidate if they don't coordinate with the campaign.
That allowed the Republican Governors Association to spend $1.7 million this year on television ads for Christie's re-election bid, while the Democratic Governors Association gave challenger Barbara Buono the maximum $3,800 direct contribution.