The two began courting one another soon after the 2008 campaign ended. Mr. Johnson had been the tristate chairman of John McCain’s campaign, his most high-profile role after having a more limited fundraising function in GOP campaigns dating back to George H.W. Bush.
By temperament, friends say, Mr. Johnson has never been one of the hot-blooded, pitchfork-rebellion Republican types, couching his fondness for Republicans instead as a need to keep Democrats and their taxing and regulatory ways out of the Oval Office. When he gets involved in primaries, it is always by lining up behind the early front-runner.
Messrs. Johnson and Romney started meeting regularly in New York or Boston or at Mr. Romney’s summer home in New Hampshire, where Mr. Johnson would shock the former Massachusetts governor by clamoring up the rocks overlooking the lake and plunging into the water off of a reserved-for-teenagers-only rope swing. The two also traveled to Israel and met with Prime Minister Netanyahu.
“I think they both wanted to make sure that they had a deep personal relationship,” said one Johnson associate.
A lot of the big New York donors were slow to commit to Mr. Romney, hoping that someone else would emerge. People like Home Depot founder Ken Langone, hedge fund billionaire Paul Singer and industrialist David Koch, were actively wooing New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. But despite the Jets and the Johnson family’s ties to the state, Mr. Johnson stayed committed to Mr. Romney.
“He is a New Jersey guy, but he never wavered,” said one member of the Romney campaign. “There was never any fear with the Romney camp that Woody was going to somehow split his allegiances. He has been all-in on this campaign.”
Mr. Johnson is not typical of someone a campaign would want in such a prominent role. Although he made money in cable and cell phone licensing early in his career, he is less an example of the great American spirit of entrepreneurialism than he is a living reminder of the advantages of inherited privilege. His daughter, Casey, was a hard-partying and drug-addicted tabloid favorite whose tangled love life included publicly accusing Mr. Johnson’s sister of stealing her boyfriend and later a lesbian engagement to the Penthouse cover girl Tila Tequila. She died in 2010 due to complications of diabetes. (A photo of Ms. Johnson was on a shelf in Mr. Johnson’s suite, and friends say Mr. Johnson was devastated by her death, but rarely talks about her. “It’s that old-world, WASPY, don’t-reveal-our-feelings thing,” one said, noting that Mr. Johnson also had a brother die when he was young and that his other daughter suffers from lupus. “Families like that are used to so much tragedy.”)
But in other respects, Mr. Johnson was perfect for the role. Someone from finance would have had to deal with a host of entanglements and the public’s distaste with Wall Street. Ditto someone from a traditional GOP sector, like energy. Someone who worked at a publicly traded company would have to answer to annoyed board members and shareholders. Plus, with only the Jets in his portfolio, Mr. Johnson has the most valuable resource any campaign could ask for: time
“I don’t think we have ever seen this combination of a guy who has his kind of stature in the region but also by a quirk of his life is able to devote 80 percent of his day to this and still maintain his day job,” said one Romney backer.