MONTCLAIR, N.J.—Gov. Chris Christie leads Barbara Buono in the polls by more than 30 points, sports a nearly 70 percent approval rating and has raised nearly three times as much political cash for his re-election bid than his opponent—leading many to believe he is virtually unbeatable this November.
But Buono, a Democratic state senator who officially won the nomination of her party Tuesday to face Christie on Election Day, insists none of this bothers her. She is unfazed by the declarations—even by members of her own party—that she is waging an unwinnable campaign.
“Let him be overconfident,” Buono said of Christie as she spoke to a group of young Democratic supporters at a phone bank in this tony suburb of New York City on Tuesday. “We’re coming up behind him, and he doesn’t even see us.”
But not everybody shares Buono’s optimism. The race has exposed a division among Democrats in the state—many of whom have privately questioned how the party could not have attracted a stronger, better-known candidate against Christie, who is widely expected to run for president in 2016.
Last month, former Gov. Brendan Byrne, a Democrat, suggested Buono should consider dropping out of the race—even though he acknowledged that a better-known opponent might not win against Christie. “It’s more about saving the undercard, finding someone who can come closer,” Byrne told the Star-Ledger. “Barbara is a nice lady, and I love her. But this is not the year for her.
Many big names considered a challenge to Christie—including Newark, N.J., Mayor Cory Booker. But Booker bypassed the race to explore a run for Sen. Frank Lautenberg’s Senate seat, a race that seemed easier to win--especially after Christie’s poll numbers soared to historic highs in the aftermath of his handling of Superstorm Sandy.
Several Democratic strategists, who declined to be named talking about the gubernatorial campaign out of fear they might inflame tensions within the party, say the state party is now more focused on maintaining Democratic control of the state Legislature than unseating Christie.
“I don’t think anybody in the party thought we would be at this point a year ago,” one New Jersey-based Democratic strategist told Yahoo News. “But nobody wants to put money or effort into a race we can’t win. And I don't know anybody who thinks this race is winnable."
While the Democratic Governors Association and other national groups continue to insist Christie is a key target this November, their claims haven’t been helped by Christie’s friendly relationship with the leader of the party, President Barack Obama. Last week, Obama and Christie went for a friendly stroll at the Jersey shore, a photo-op that featured big smiles, man hugs and even several minutes of playing an amusement park game which ended with the two sharing a friendly high-five.
Buono, who was also at the shore for Obama’s visit, met with the president as part of a group and received little more than a handshake. While Buono shrugged off the political slight, some Democrats were angered at what they described as a potential death knell for her campaign--a photo-op that played into Christie’s strategy of casting himself as a governor willing to buck his own party for the sake of the state.
“Totally unbelievable,” a Democratic strategist with ties to the White House, raged when asked about the Obama/Christie photo-op. The strategist, who declined to be named because of fear of retribution, added, “Could Obama have done anything more unhelpful? I don’t think so. It kills enthusiasm. It kills fundraising. It was infuriating.”
Asked about the photo-op, Buono declined to directly criticize the president. But she acknowledged the detractors of her campaign—even among members of her own party—and argued that she would prove them wrong.
“Everybody wants a sure thing, but there is no sure thing in politics or in life. The only thing that is for sure is that I have always been underestimated,” Buono said in an interview, insisting that she has always been written off as a candidate dating back to her first run for the state House in 1994.
She won a seat in the state Senate in 2002. Soon she became chair of the powerful Budget Committee—the first woman ever to hold that role.
“They said I would never be the first woman to chair the budget committee and I was,” Buono told Yahoo News. “I figured out my own plan. I executed it. I didn’t listen to all the chatter... People in general have underestimated me. They’ve said I would never win a lot of things, and if I had listened to them saying I would never win anything, I would have never made it in politics in the first place."
But Buono’s biggest problem may be that few people in New Jersey know who she is. A recent Quinnipiac University poll found that 78 percent of state voters didn’t know enough about her to form an opinion.
Her campaign is hoping to change that. Last month, Buono launched a $1 million television ad campaign, running spots in both the Philadelphia and New York City markets. On the campaign trail, she is playing up her personal roots in the state—emphasizing her biography as someone who put herself through college and law school after her father, an Italian immigrant who worked as a butcher, died when she was 19.
But Christie isn’t leaving anything to chance. Last month, he began running television ads linking Buono to former Gov. Jon Corzine—who lost re-election to Christie and has recently been in the news for his role in the collapse of an investment firm where he worked after leaving office.
According to political observers, Christie’s goal appears to be running up a margin of victory high enough to brag about should he choose to run for president in three years—a victory the moderate governor hopes might overcome differences between him and the party’s social conservative wing.
“If you are Chris Christie, you want to be able to walk into the primary debates, and say, 'Who else on this stage won re-election by a huge margin in a blue state?'" said Patrick Murray, a political scientist at Monmouth University. “Right now, it looks like the only thing that can stop Chris Christie is Chris Christie. It is his race to lose.”
But an open question for Buono’s campaign is whether she can attract support from Democratic groups who want to stop the momentum of a Christie presidential bid. In April, a superPAC called One New Jersey began running television ads attacking Christie’s record in the state, highlighting his conservative record on abortion and his economic record in the state. Their ads have blanketed the New York television market--alongside Christie's re-election ads, which have sought to remind voters of his handling of Sandy.
It’s unclear how much the group, which did not return phone calls seeking comment, is planning to spend on the race.
In recent days, Buono’s campaign and her supporters have likened her challenge to unseat Christie to the persistence of Lautenberg, a beloved politician in the state who died Monday.
“The numbers were stacked against him, but Lautenberg knew better,” state Democratic Party chairman John Wisniewski told a crowd of supporters at Buono’s election night party in Edison, N.J., on Tuesday. “He worked hard, and he proved them all wrong.” Buono, he argued, was in the same position.
A few minutes later, the candidate herself made the connection to Lautenberg—calling on her audience to draw “inspiration” from the late senator and his long political career.
“Sen. Lautenberg is no longer with us, but let us carry that torch in his honor. Let us remember the fight for the common good that unites us, not as Democrats or Republicans or independents, but as residents of the state of New Jersey,” Buono said. “That’s what’s at the core of this party. That’s what inspires me every day on the campaign trail.”