While Republican Gov. Chris Christie is holding news conferences and town hall sessions; accepting endorsements from local Democrats; officiating at shore reconstruction projects; and dashing around the country picking up a few million dollars here and there, New Jersey Democrats are anonymously trashing their gubernatorial candidate and fueling speculation that the party’s get-out-the vote machinery will be running at only half speed this November.
The party’s dilemma was self-created by spending months in pursuit of a candidate other than state Sen. Barbara Buono (D-Middlesex) and, when that effort failed, resigning itself to her defeat and concentrating on a strategy to save legislative and local candidates on the ballot with her.
And even though the comment from an anonymous Democrat in a recent profile of Buono in the Daily Beast, that she became the presumptive nominee because “It was 2 a.m. and the bar was closing, and Barbara was looking pretty good,” was monumentally stupid and morally repugnant, it was also revealing. It reflects the feelings of a segment of the party who believe Buono is little more than the default candidate who will lose badly, endangering the party’s legislative majorities and control of courthouses and town halls.
Adding to their dismal outlook is the persistent speculation that the party’s strong leaders — who could always be relied upon to turn out the troops on election day — will ease up and produce a fraction of their usual pluralities.
Further, South Jersey powerbroker George Norcross, Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo, and Hudson County State Sen. Brian Stack all enjoy cozy personal and political relationships with Christie and are more interested in preserving them than going all in for what they see as a lost cause.
When asked about the gubernatorial campaign in light of their power-sharing arrangement with Christie, Norcross and DiVincenzo emphasized their party roots and said, essentially, “I’m a Democrat.”
It was reminiscent of a general manager of a losing baseball team who expresses his complete confidence in the field manager, only to summarily fire him a few days later.
Buono is the candidate because Newark Mayor Cory Booker, Essex County State Sen. Dick Codey and Senate President Steve Sweeney of Gloucester County decided to forgo the race.
Booker wants to run for the U. S. Senate in 2014 and feared a loss to Christie would damage his brand and chances. Codey and Sweeney, despite claims they were seriously considering a challenge, never intended to give up their positions to take on a governor whose job approval ratings are above 70 percent and who would be able to outspend them by ridiculous margins.
Buono is an articulate, intelligent, and insightful individual fully aware of the task she faces in challenging Christie and overcoming the apathy in her own party.
Her campaign will be traditional Democratic left of center, focusing on what she contends has been Christie’s turning his back on the middle class and ignoring the plight of low-income New Jerseyans, while protecting the wealthy from paying their fair share of taxes.
She’s criticized him for his vetoes of legislation to increase the state’s minimum wage and to legalize same-sex marriage and for cutting spending for healthcare services for those in need. She’s called him out for maintaining a “no comment” position on proposals to limit access to firearms and for refusing state participation in healthcare exchanges under the federal Affordable Care Act.
The governor’s job-performance rating can be attributed, in considerable measure, to his leadership in preparing for and recovering from the devastation inflicted by Hurricane Sandy. Buono is counting on that luster fading and being replaced by voter discontent with high property taxes, an unemployment rate above the national average and that of neighboring states, a lack of significant job creation, and a general economic malaise.
The governor’s campaign, by refusing to accept public funding and the spending restrictions that go with it, will be able to shell out millions on television advertising touting his accomplishments while outside advocacy groups will be able to spend even more on his behalf if they choose to. The Republican State Committee will have ample resources to mount an extensive get-out-the-vote effort and put feet on the street on Election Day.
The Democratic Governors Association has promised support for Buono, but the extent of its financial commitment is unclear. In the meantime, she must overcome her lack of statewide recognition, even as she attempts to convince voters that a change in leadership is necessary for the state to make progress in solving its most difficult problems.
The lack of enthusiasm in her own party — deliberate or circumstantial — makes her task all the more difficult.
It’s been said that the secret to political success is to find a parade and get in front of it. At the moment, that’s exactly where Christie is, while the Democrats are curbside spectators.
Carl Golden is a senior contributing analyst with the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey.