It was a snowy December day in New York City when a few dozen of the rich and mighty gathered in a private room at a posh Midtown eatery for lunch. In attendance was enough political and financial wattage to constitute a Bilderberg quorum: J.P. Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon, Goldman Sachs chief Lloyd Blankfein, legendary Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, the future former mayor of New York Michael Bloomberg; the list went on. At one of the tables the talk turned to politics — and speculation about who would carry each party’s banner into the next presidential election. There was easy consensus for Hillary Clinton as the Democratic nominee, but what about for the Republicans?
“Chris Christie,” pronounced Ken Langone, the billionaire founder of Home Depot and a major booster of the New Jersey governor. That drew a quick objection from Vernon Jordan, the Democratic superlawyer and quintessential Friend of Bill from the Clinton years. “He’s a bully,” Jordan said.
Langone returned the volley: “It’s Christie!”
Jordan countered: “He’s a bully. He’s a bully.”
It’s worth noting that this good-natured schoolyard squabble came a month before the revelation that Christie aides had engineered those Fort Lee, N.J., traffic snarls around the George Washington Bridge, apparently for political retribution, setting off a national firestorm and prompting career-threatening questions about the New Jersey governor’s role. Jordan, it seems, was awfully prescient.
But at the lunch the real question wasn’t about Christie’s temperament. Rather, it was about how a moderate, even a blustery one, could secure the nod of a rightward-lurching party. For that, Langone had a wordless reply, rubbing his thumb and fingers together to indicate the flood of money that will sweep Christie through.
The support the New Jersey governor draws from just those sorts of rarefied precincts — the kind of support that comes block-printed on campaign checks — will be a leading indicator of his ability to weather this storm of his team’s own making. Says Jordan now, amid the unfolding bridge fiasco: Christie “set a bully tone. Aides don’t go off on their own and do something like that.”
“Regarding his involvement, I have no doubt, based simply on what he said and the stand he’s taken, that he’s telling the truth,” Langone tells Fortune. “And because he is telling the truth, it’s a big yawn.”
Let us state right now that in medias res is about the worst possible vantage to judge the longer-term impact of what is now being called Bridgegate, Bridgeghazi, and Jam-Scam, to borrow one from the New York Post. The episode — in which top Christie lieutenants, for a so-called traffic study, choked the lanes heading from Fort Lee onto the George Washington Bridge into Manhattan — caused four days of brutal tie-ups.
If our Twitter-addled era has demonstrated anything, it’s that we just don’t know until later what sticks. But this isn’t an Etch A Sketch moment; the scandal has staying power. There are a whole lot more questions than answers at this point, notwithstanding Christie’s 108-minute marathon press conference the day after the news broke on Jan. 8. Two separate official investigations have been launched to find out what we don’t yet know — one by the U.S. Attorney for New Jersey (a job Christie himself once held), and another by the state legislature. Add to that an unrelated federal probe, reported Jan. 13, into questions about whether Christie’s team picked a pricier bid for taxpayer-funded ads touting the state’s recovery from Hurricane Sandy because they featured the governor and his family in the run-up to his reelection.
Christie’s office referred Fortune to the governor’s statement at his Jan. 9 press conference, in which he pledged to cooperate with the investigations. Christie has also fired two aides implicated in the lane closings and said he was both “blindsided” by the actions and sorry for the damage done. On the post-Sandy ads, a spokesman said he is confident that any review will show they “were a key part in helping New Jersey get back on its feet.”
For all the unanswered questions, here’s what we do know: C-suite Republicans are tracking the fallout nervously. Even before Mitt Romney’s electoral belly flop, the Chamber of Commerce wing of the GOP had singled out Christie — a pro-business, pro-Wall Street, tough-on-unions blue-stater — as its best hope for a friend in the White House after eight years in the wilderness. Christie had not only tamed suburban liberals in New Jersey, home to 21 Fortune 500 companies, but also made believers of the captains of finance next door in New York. “He’s such a breath of fresh air, as opposed to the junk we have in Washington today,” says Dan Lufkin, a co-founder of storied Wall Street firm Donaldson Lufkin & Jenrette. That goes for Christie’s response to the bridge mess too. “He took quick, drastic action,” adds Lufkin. “It’s another demonstration of his straightforwardness.”
But in politics, admiration goes only so far. Christie until this crucible had been the beneficiary of a national press corps that celebrated his straight-talk shtick. He became a lovably outsize mascot for Jersey bombast. That treatment helped inflate his profile well beyond his home state while reassuring the donor class that his unapologetic leadership style and retail gifts can overcome the rift dividing the party — the one between Tea Party insurgents and business elites. Christie’s pitch as the Guy Who Wins could indeed be enough to cinch the shadow primary for campaign dollars leading up to 2016. But it also rests on a rickety tautology, the one implied by Langone’s gesture at the New York lunch: Christie’s going to win because he’ll have the money, and he’ll have the money because he’s going to win.
Speaking behind closed doors at a Boston gathering of Republican leaders last summer, the governor laid bare his disdain for the Tea Party types, like Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, with whom he was openly feuding, trying to force a rethinking of mossy party orthodoxies. “We are not a debating society,” Christie said, according to Time. “We are a political operation that needs to win.” On Election Day, Christie romped. Not only did he sew up 60% of the state’s vote, a gubernatorial total not seen there in a quarter-century, but he scored decisive victories among the demographics the GOP is keenest to reclaim, winning Hispanics by six points, women by 15, and independents by a whopping 34.
And donors love a winner. It was in part Christie’s skill at converting voters otherwise hostile to the GOP that prompted Langone and scores of other elite contributors to mount an effort to draft him into the 2012 presidential race. As Dan Balz recounts in his book Collision 2012, Langone invited Christie to breakfast at an exclusive club in Manhattan in July 2011. The governor arrived to find a room full of roughly 60 of the party’s top donors, all ready to pledge themselves to his campaign. “Everyone in this room will raise every dollar you need,” Christie recounted Langone telling him. At that point Romney, a candidate who looked as if he had been born in a boardroom, was already running. But the crowd in the room was skeptical of the former private equity executive’s ability to connect broadly. “A lot of politics, particularly presidential politics, is about personality,” Ron Kaufman, who advised Romney on both of his runs, tells Fortune today. “Chris has a large personality, and he’s a very popular governor, a fiscally conservative, pro-life governor of a very blue state.”
When the fuller story of the traffic troubles is revealed, however, that Christie image could wobble badly enough to collapse; his advantage is that he may have time to repair the damage. If he can’t, conversations with party wise men and Wall Street donors suggest a troubling fact for the Garden Stater: Establishment esteem for him runs wide but not particularly deep. His early backers want more than anything to retake the White House in three years. They would be unsentimental in picking a replacement to don their colors from a stable of ready Republicans, say several party insiders. And that’s the rub.
Christie himself well understands that real-time chaos on the trail often confounds a campaign’s best-laid plans. (“No matter what you map out at the beginning,” he once said, “it’s always different at the end.”) That said, Christie does have a good starting block for a 2016 run in his role as chairman of the Republican Governors Association. The assignment, to help elect governors in 36 contests this year, comes with the twin benefits of allowing him to broaden his donor network beyond his New York financial base while honing his party-building chops. And it doesn’t hurt that the states in play include the early presidential proving grounds of Iowa, South Carolina, and Florida. “It’s a pretty big deal in our world,” says Fred Malek, the RGA’s finance chair. “I’d expect he’ll be very active both raising money and advising candidates.”
Big success with that task would help quiet gripes in some Republican quarters that Christie puts his own interests before his party’s — complaints sustained by his overly self-referential speech at the 2012 Republican convention and his embrace of President Obama in the wake of Hurricane Sandy a week before the election. “I’m still smarting from that,” one top Wall Street Republican says. Meanwhile, Christie could use some bipartisan accomplishments from his second term to freshen the argument that he’s a pragmatist who gets things done. How badly the fallout from the scandal hobbles his ability to work with the Democrats who control both chambers in the state’s legislature remains to be seen. “This investigation is going to continue well into the year,” notes Gordon Johnson, a New Jersey assemblyman who serves in the Democratic leadership, “and people are going to be following it nationwide, not just those trapped in the traffic jam.”
If anything should give Christie’s presidential dreams comfort in these dark days, it’s history. He’s a center-right candidate in a party that, since Barry Goldwater, has almost always picked a center-right candidate as its nominee. And while it’s unclear where the discord now roiling the GOP will leave the party when it gears up to choose a 2016 standard-bearer, “electability” is likely to be a potent consideration for Republican mega-donors suffering increasingly from Obama fatigue. Of course, the danger for Christie is that his case is self-reinforcing in both directions. He can claim to be a winner because he’s won. But if he starts losing altitude — and again, it’s too early to say — it sets up the political equivalent of a deflationary spiral. Christie’s demonstrable gifts as a politician and the record he’s compiled as governor have vaulted him to the front of the 2016 pack. He is not, however, his party’s only choice.
“What most all Republicans are looking for is a candidate who can win,” Malek says. “Christie has demonstrated he can win, and there are others who have demonstrated that as well.” The list of contenders who’d make a similar argument probably begins with former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, should he choose to enter the race, along with a handful of governors now leading Midwestern states: Scott Walker in Wisconsin, John Kasich in Ohio, and Rick Snyder in Michigan. Assuming, that is, that they can all keep the traffic moving.
This story is from the February 3, 2014 issue of Fortune.