Christie’s National Prominence Aided by Anonymous Money

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In the two years since Governor Chris Christie got elected to office, he has never stopped campaigning. Christie’s name and image are both in constant rotation in cyberspace, over the broadcast airwaves and in print. And he insists he’s got nothing to do with the group that is taking credit for the latest TV ad blitz that is airing now.

In the latest ad, timed ahead of the bipartisan tenure reform bill Gov. Christie is expected to sign into law on Monday, a reassuring female narrator praises Christie’s record while images of an upbeat New Jersey and a governor on the move cross the TV screen. “It's a new day in New Jersey Governor Christie, and reformers are moving us in the right direction -- three balanced budgets without raising taxes”.    

In the pricey Philadelphia and New York media markets, it’s hard to miss these ads in heavy rotation, but they are remarkable as much for what they leave out: Governor Christie is a Republican. 

Instead, with a distinct vibe recalling Reagan’s "Morning in America," the ad praises Christie’s “bi-partisan teacher tenure reform and the most education funding ever.” It tells viewers that “there’s more to do." It asks them to "help Chris Christie and bi-partisan reformers. Join us and keep New Jersey moving in the right direction.”

In response to a WNYC query about the ads, Christie’s spokesperson Mike Dwerniak sent a statement made by the governor at a press conference in September of last year when asked by reporters about The Committee For Our Children's Future, another group that was responsible for a big ad buy.

“I think anybody who is out there spending money to say something nice about you, I’m generally supportive,” read the Christie transcript. “But I have nothing to do with the group. I don’t raise money for them. And, you know, if they are out there helping me, I say thank you very much."

A group called Jamestown Associates is responsible for the latest pro-Christie TV time, according to documents obtained by WNYC. Jamestown appears multiple times in state campaign finance records as a vendor for past Christie campaigns.

The end of the current ads feature a website The website proudly proclaims it has spent more than $6 million dollars in the last 11 months on the pro-Christie ad campaign, and further digging shows that it originates from The Committee For Our Children's Future. The site lists only a P.O. Box in Bernardsville, N.J. as contact information. Bernardsville is about file miles from where the governor lives in Mendham Borough, N.J.

According to paperwork WNYC obtained at the TV stations selling the air time, The Committee For Our Children's Future lists a phone number belonging to Brian Jones, the former Communications Director for John McCain's presidential campaign. Jones now works for the Blackrock Group, a national political strategy firm.  Jones told WNYC that because the Committee is a 501(c)(4) non-profit organization, it doesn't disclose its donors. He defends the use of 501(c)(4)s to influence public opinion.

“You're seeing this used certainly by Republicans, Democrats by organizations that don't have any partisan affiliation," he said. "You are seeing this increasingly across the country where different entities are looking to get their message out."

Jeff Brindle, the executive director of New Jersey's Election Law Enforcement Commission, says that according to campaign finance law, a group like the Committee for Our Children's Future must act independently of Governor Christie but that “501(c)(4) groups that undertake what we call ‘issue ads’ are not required to report under New Jersey campaign finance law.”

The TV station billing records also includes a residential address in Bernardsville, the home of a Christie donor, according to campaign finance records. The donor's son served as an intern for Governor Christie in 2010.

But it's not just paid TV that makes Christie so formidable;  there is the governor's own ground game that keeps him in the spotlight. Christie can make even an evacuation announcement in advance of Hurricane Irene into a "You Tube" moment. Remember “Get the hell off the beach”?

The Christie media tsunami is a confluence of these You Tube moments, the saturation ad buy, plus the free media generated from the 88 town halls Governor Christie has done.

Bob Ingle, a political columnist with the Asbury Park Press and author of a new biography entitled Chris Christie -The Inside Story of his Rise To Power. He says Christie has created a narrative that has stuck in the public’s consciousness.

Ingle believes Christie really owes the state's teachers union, the NJEA, for his meteoric rise. When the NJEA rebuffed Christie's request teachers take a wage freeze to keep new teachers on the job, it launched Christie into national orbit.

"The mistake the NJEA made is they did not realize there was a new sheriff in town, and this guy was not going to back down,” Ingle says. “You look at the polls that we started doing after that happened, and what you saw was Chris Christie's popularity going up and he teacher's union's popularity going down.”

The NJEA Christie gambit did not just cost the union in the court of public opinion. They launched a TV ad campaign that cost them more than $11 million dollars in 2011 that targeted Christie.

But Brigid Harrison, professor of political science and law at Montclair University, says unlike the pro-Christie Committee For Our Kids Future, the NJEA’s sponsorship gave voters a clear sense of the source of the money  behind the teachers’ message. “So voters can take this content with a grain of salt, others are going to reject it, others will espouse it. But they know where it is coming from.”

additional reporting by Colby Hamilton