Democratic gubernatorial nominee Barbara Buono is getting about as much traction in New Jersey as if she were running in Texas.
In blue, blue New Jersey, where 58 percent of voters pulled the lever for Obama last November, a Democratic candidate should at least be viable. But Buono, a state senator, is flailing: According to the Real Clear Politics average of recent polls, she trails Chris Christie by 32 points.
“It’s a snooze,” Doug Muzzio, a political analyst and Baruch College professor, says of the election. “She’s up against the 800-pound gorilla. The governor is a national figure. He’s got a big war chest. He is popular.”
“Despite his policy stands and his bombast,” Muzzio adds, “he is seen to be the Jersey governor. That’s tough to beat. You’re running against a bit of mythology as well as a man in this case.”
Christie, no doubt, is a formidable opponent. His brash talk, his governing style, and especially his skillful handling of Hurricane Sandy’s horrific damage have earned him incredible numbers for a Republican in New Jersey: A Kean University poll this month found that 71 percent of likely voters approve of Christie. Pair those numbers with Christie’s media savvy, and set them against Buono’s lack of such skills and her low name recognition, and it’s clear why she’s struggling. “Christie can eat a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich,” drily remarks Montclair State University political-science professor Brigid Harrison, “and it’s going to be on the national news.”
Nor does Buono have any easy route to making herself better known. She has raised less than a million dollars so far — while Christie has raised 6 million. (Buono has chosen to accept matching funds from the state, which limits her total take, but gives her another dollar for every dollar she raises.) Running in New Jersey isn’t cheap, thanks to the state’s reliance on the New York City and Philadelphia media markets. And the way that plenty of voters are first becoming aware of Buono is through the negative ads about her that Christie’s campaign opted to run this month.
But lack of name recognition and lackluster fundraising aren’t the entirety of Buono’s problems: She is also struggling to unite New Jersey Democrats behind her bid. In an interview with the New Jersey Star-Ledger last week, Democratic former governor Brendan Byrne advised Buono to consider dropping out. Muzzio sees Byrne’s remarks as a deterrent signal to state Democrats: “She’s never going to raise a nickel,” he remarks.
“Essentially,” Harrison says, “Buono is coming into the Democratic nomination with the façade of support of her party, but without the real strong backing of the party bosses.” They won’t publicly announce they don’t want her elected, but they “have been very cooperative with the governor.”
New Jersey Democratic strategist Julie Roginsky thinks that Christie also deserves credit for working to broaden his appeal beyond Republicans. “The governor has done a good job of cross-pollinating among different constituencies,” she comments. He has “picked up a lot of support among certain high-profile Democrats, whether tacit or outward support, and so in that sense, he has governed and has done his politics in a very bipartisan way.”
Buono, on the other hand, is launching Democratic infighting, such as the stir over her nominee for state party chairman, Assemblyman Jason O’Donnell. State-senate president Steve Sweeney quickly announced that he disagreed with the choice of O’Donnell. Sweeney’s a powerful figure in New Jersey Democratic politics, and the tension between him and Buono is nothing new: When she was state-senate majority leader in 2011, she voted against the pension-reform legislation that Sweeney voted for — which is generally believed to be the reason she ultimately lost her leadership role in the state senate.
National Democrats have also mostly been quiet about the race so far. In a video released by Christie’s office earlier this month that mocks his attachment to his fleece jacket, Democratic strategist and longtime Clinton insider James Carville appears — and makes a phone call to Hillary. “Hey, Hillary,” Carville says. “He’s lookin’ for the fleece jacket. You know, the one that you liked that goes so good with that Yankees cap that you have?” Carville’s joking, but his agreeing to appear in the video has spurred speculation that the Clintons are signaling they won’t become involved in the New Jersey race — despite the real potential for a Christie–Hillary faceoff in 2016.
Roginsky argues that with the gubernatorial election still five months off, it’s premature to assume that national Democrats won’t become involved. “You get more bang for your buck when people start paying attention,” she notes, adding that if national Democrats do decide to hit the campaign trail for Buono, it will be in September or October.
Christie’s national ambitions aside, state Democrats have another incentive to rally around Buono: the threat of Christie’s coattails. If he wins by a big enough margin, he has a decent shot of helping Republican candidates win some legislative seats — and even possibly to nab majorities in the state senate and assembly. Democrats may have learned that it’s possible to work with Christie — but they certainly don’t want to be in a position where he doesn’t necessarily need their support to get legislation passed.
The general expectation is that the race will tighten before November, and Christie’s own success in 2009 shows that it’s possible for a badly lagging candidate to surge in the final weeks. But it still looks as if the only question is not whether Christie wins in November, but by how much.
— Katrina Trinko is an NRO reporter.