Republican Donors Facing a Quandary ; Christie Backers Feel Tug of Loyalty as Jeb Bush Ponders a Possible Bid

Article excerpt

Backers of Chris Christie are feeling a tug of loyalty as yet another Bush -- Jeb -- ponders a possible bid for the presidency.

Jeb Bush's increasingly serious and public examination of a run for president is roiling the ranks of establishment Republican donors and fundraisers who planned to back Chris Christie in 2016, forcing many of them to rethink their allegiance to the embattled New Jersey governor.

In private conversations that are now seeping into public view, some of them are signaling to Mr. Christie's camp that, should Mr. Bush enter the race, their first loyalty would be to the former Florida governor, not Mr. Christie, according to interviews with more than two dozen of them.

Many of those who, because of geography and personal ties, were expected to line up behind Mr. Christie say they now feel torn. It is clear that Mr. Christie's recent troubles, especially the scandal over bridge lane closings and traffic jams, is adding to the allure of Mr. Bush.

Lawrence E. Bathgate II, a former finance chairman of the Republican National Committee and a major donor in Mr. Christie's home state of New Jersey, dreads the prospect of having to choose between the two governors, calling it "a fraught decision."

David V. Hedley, a retired Wall Street executive and Republican Party fund-raiser in New Jersey, also feels tugged in two directions, conceding that "it's tough right now for me."

Christine Todd Whitman, the former Republican governor of New Jersey, put it this way: "It would be awkward. It would be very awkward."

Nowhere is the consternation greater than among the hundreds of top donors and bundlers who cut their teeth on Bush family political campaigns. If Mr. Bush runs, they must choose between bucking their ties to the first family of Republican politics, or turning their back on Mr. Christie, who does not take well to disloyalty.

"Those of us that have been dedicated to the Bush family for years would obviously have to take a Jeb candidacy into extremely serious consideration," said Fred S. Zeidman, a Texas businessman and top fund-raiser for George W. Bush's two presidential campaigns who has helped introduce Mr. Christie to potential supporters in his state.

Neither Mr. Christie nor Mr. Bush has officially declared his intentions for 2016. Mr. Christie's advisers say his political focus this year remains on leading the Republican Governors Association, which has broken fund-raising records during Mr. Christie's tenure as chairman.

The presidential chatter is "irrelevant to us," said William Palatucci, Mr. Christie's top adviser and former law partner. "You know it's out there, but it's just not part of our conversation."

But Mr. Bush's public flirtation with a White House bid has interrupted Mr. Christie's carefully crafted plan to rebuild the faith of donors shaken by a series of high-profile scandals and resignations within his administration.

Until Mr. Bush emerged as a potential 2016 contender, these donors said, they had no real alternative but to hope for Mr. Christie's successful rehabilitation from a season of controversies.

"They feel good about Jeb. They don't have any questions about his integrity," said Barry Wynn, a fundraiser for George W. Bush and former chairman of the Republican Party in South Carolina, who said his phone rings nearly every day with calls from fellow state party leaders talking up a possible Jeb Bush candidacy. …