Chris Christie Is Looking Unbeatable
It’s been a rough couple of weeks for New Jersey Democrats. First, Cory Booker decides to run for the Senate in 2014 instead of the Governor’s mansion, then a succession of other Democrats — from Senate President Steve Sweeny to former Acting Governor Richard Codey — announced that they would not be entering the race either. It’s hard not to understand why they made all these otherwise politically ambitious men made this decision, though. After all, as we approached three month anniversary of Hurricane Sandy striking the Jersey Shore, Governor Chris Christie’s job approval numbers remain at stratospheric highs and seem to show no signs of dropping any time soon. Who wants to risk their own political future on a seemingly unwinnable race? That’s not to say that New Jersey Democrats will be without a candidate this year. While the heavyweights of New Jersey politics have demurred at running, a relatively unknown State Senator from heavily Democratic Middlesex County threw her hat in the ring, and now appears to be the candidate that the party is rallying behind, despite the fact that nobody seems to believe she can win:
Monday should have been Barbara Buono’s triumphant moment as the Democratic Party started to coalesce around her candidacy for governor.
A cascade of endorsements minted her as the party’s genuine standard-bearer. It was time for the feisty, 59-year-old Metuchen lawyer to bask in the aura of inevitability. Yet the pledges of loyalty and support did not dispel the ambivalence the Democratic Party has about her quest to unseat Governor Christie in November.
Party leaders are finally, grudgingly abandoning their Anybody But Barbara recruitment drive for a consensus candidate. They realized that there will be no deep-pocketed star with strong approval ratings swooping out of central casting or the State House to defeat Christie.
Buono is building her campaign around a bold premise: Christie’s policies have brought hardship to the middle class of New Jersey. Before Christie was known as the savior of superstorm Sandy, Buono says he racked up a dismal record of failure — unemployment that was higher than the national average, tepid job growth and rising home foreclosures. His funding cuts for family planning clinics and cuts to tax credits for the working poor, she says, are out of step with the mainstream, middle-class New Jersey.
“Choreographed town hall meetings and YouTube videos are not going pull New Jersey out of the economic doldrums that we are in,” she said.
Buono is banking that this unapologetically liberal, Democratic appeal will connect in a state that twice carried President Obama to victory and where Democrats hold a 700,000 advantage in registered voters. That’s going to be a tough sell in the face of Christie’s post-Sandy approval ratings, soaring between 70 and 80 percent.
Buono is undaunted. She’s been down this road when she ran as an underdog candidate for the Assembly in 1994. “The odds were stacked against me then, too, and I defied expectations,” she said.
But this is a longer road stretching far beyond the familiar confines of Middlesex County. Whether she has a lot of friends to help her along the way or whether she goes it alone remains to be seen — regardless of how many pledges of undying support she receives today.
All of this places New Jersey Democrats on unfamiliar territory:
For Garden State Democrats, the reversal of fortune these past few years has been startling. For the decade and a half before Christie’s 2009 election, Democrats were practically unbeatable in the state. There were two main ingredients to this success: Demographic changes that made the state more diverse and Democrat-friendly, and the post-1994 redefinition of the national Republican Party as Southern-dominated, Christian-infused and ideologically far to the right; the culturally liberal suburbanites who’d happily voted for Kean, Clifford Case and even Ronald Reagan began fleeing the G.O.P. label in droves. Even when it seemed like they were doing everything they could to lose elections, Democrats would still come out on top.
But now they’re fighting for their lives, facing not only the prospect of four more years without the governorship, but also the potential unraveling of a down-ballot empire on which the jobs and contracts that give the party its organizational and financial muscle depend. It’s a turnaround that can be attributed to a host of culprits, but one towers over the others: The New Jersey Democratic Party itself.
They totally failed to realize how different 2009 was from the ’94-’08 era. They also failed to realize that the Norcross and Adubato machines were purposefully going to sleep on the governor. And so there was real shock on the left when Christie beat Corzine by 4.5 points.
From that point, it was only a matter of time before the rest of the country discovered what those who had been watching New Jersey closely for a decade had long known: that Christie was actually a massively talented communicator, charismatic, funny and capable of owning any room he walked into. What had been missing for his whole career was a platform where his performance skills would be noticed. With his ’09 win, he got one, and he took full advantage of it.
It didn’t have to end up this way for Democrats. There’s no way of knowing how a Codey governorship would have turned out. But it’s hard to see it having gone any worse than Corzine’s, and easy to see how it could have been a lot more successful. At the very least, he knew how to talk to the public, and while 2009 would have been a tough year for a Democratic governor to win re-election, it’s worth remembering that Corzine came within 4.5 points of pulling it off.
So while New Jersey Democrats scramble to avoid a top-to-bottom massacre this fall, maybe they’ll take a minute to pause, think back over the last decade or so, and commit to memory the following lesson: Money isn’t everything.
Indeed, it seems clear in retrospect that letting Jon Corzine buy a Senate seat, and then the Governor’s office, with his Wall Street millions wasn’t exactly the wisest decision that New Jersey’s Democrats have ever made. But, that’s water under the bridge at this point.
It’s worth noting, of course, that the election is still some nine months or so away and that anything could happen in what is, after all, a solidly blue state. Christie could implode. Buono could prove to be a more effective campaigner than most people are anticipating she’ll be. Anything’s possible. Just because it’s possible, though, that doesn’t mean it’s very probable. In his three years in office, Christie has made very few mistakes, and he seems to know exactly what to do to connect with New Jersey voters. Buono being able to over come that, while within the realm of possibility, just doesn’t seem very likely. In fact, it’s likely that the New Jersey Governor’s race, which probably would have been widely covered nationally if it had turned into a Christie v. Booker matchup, will get far less national attention than the far more competitive race in Virginia between Ken Cuccinelli and former Clinton adviser Terry McAuliffe. In New Jersey, the real question for them this time around may well end up being wither Buono will be able to put up enough of a fight against a seemingly unstoppable Christie to prevent serious down ticket losses. That’s the main reason that the party elite have decided to just give up and back Buono. With nobody else willing to run, it’s time to stop the bleeding.