New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is big, brash, and, at times, a bully. He has rejected equal-pay bills and slashed Planned Parenthood funding. The gender gap is the obvious attack zone for his female Democratic challenger, state Sen. Barbara Buono.
Except that women love him. A recent Quinnipiac University poll that showed Christie with a commanding 35-point lead in the race also found that 66 percent of women view him favorably.
The silver lining for Buono: 81 percent of women haven’t heard enough about her to form an opinion. That means Buono has seven months to raise her profile and shred Christie’s positive image. It’s a daunting task for a candidate who has never run statewide before and is expected to face an enormous fundraising disadvantage against the one of the most popular Republican governors in the country.
Buono says that Christie’s ratings are “artificially inflated” in the wake of superstorm Sandy–83 percent of women approve of his handling of the recovery–and will drop as voters hear more about the state’s 9.3 percent unemployment rate and his opposition to abortion and gay marriage.
“We certainly expect women to be a significant portion of the vote and expect to win the majority of them,” said Buono’s spokesman, David Turner. “He’s trying to recast himself as a social moderate and it’s simply not true. The state has been recovering from a tragedy, but they’re going to care about a whole host of issues in this election and the totality of his record.”
In New Jersey and Virginia--the two states with gubernatorial elections this year--women made up more than half of the 2009 turnout (52 percent in Virginia and 53 percent in New Jersey), ensuring an intense competition for their votes in 2013. These battles will be closely watched as the national Republican Party seeks to boost its appeal to women and to lay a positive foundation for the 2014 midterm elections.
Christie’s team is skeptical Buono will be successful in trying to yoke the governor to a national Republican Party many voters view as too extreme.
“I think the most important thing is his authenticity,” said the governor’s top political strategist, Mike DuHaime. “He says what he thinks, brutally and honestly, and people respond to that. He also puts results first and partisanship second.”
The Conservative Political Action Conference’s recent snub only reinforced the governor’s efforts to position himself as a pragmatist. Christie wasn’t invited to address last month’s gathering of conservative activists sponsored by the American Conservative Union because he praised President Obama’s response to the devastating storm and slapped House Republicans for holding up federal aid.
Of course, what boosts his standing in his liberal state could dent his image among the conservative Republicans who dominate presidential primaries, if Christie decides to run in 2016.
For example, take his no-fuss stand on abortion. “I’m pro-life. I believe in exceptions for rape, incest, and the life of the mother. That’s my position, take it or leave it,” Christie said on NBC’s Meet the Press in 2011 with trademark panache. When the governor cut about $7.5 million in funding for family-planning services that year, he cast his decision as necessary to plug a massive budget deficit, not as a moral blow against abortion.
Christie has employed similar delicacy when discussing gay marriage, stating his personal opposition while also endorsing a proposed statewide referendum that could overturn his veto. Same-sex marriage is backed by a solid majority of New Jersey voters, including 68 percent of women. “Let the people of New Jersey decide what’s right for the state,” Christie said last year, projecting a live-and-let-live attitude.
Buono’s success depends on whether she can cast Christie in a much harsher light by reminding voters that he once supported a constitutional ban on abortion and that his family-planning spending cuts led to the closure of six women’s health clinics. Pro-Buono protesters outside a fundraiser at the home of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg last month shouted, “Hey, Facebook, shame on you. Christie hurts women and now you do, too.”
Buono also been assailing Christie for saying he was “of two minds” about legislation that would ban so-called gay-conversion therapy. In fundraising appeals and interviews, she frequently refers to the “real" Chris Christie.
“He’s anything but a social moderate and his record will speak for himself. We will hold him accountable,” said Buono, the first woman to serve as majority leader in the state Senate, earlier this week in an interview on MSNBC.
Her line of attack mirrors the accusations leveled by the Democratic front-runner in the Virginia governor’s race, Terry McAuliffe, against Republican Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli. But Cuccinelli has given Democrats much more fodder as a longtime crusader on social issues and the author of a new diatribe for the conservative movement called The Last Line of Defense. In contrast, Christie is basking in the buzz from a recent appearance on David Letterman’s show in which he self-deprecatingly ate a doughnut.
“As this campaign starts focusing more on issues and less on late-night talk-show appearances, you’re going to see those poll numbers move,” said Jess McIntosh, a spokeswoman for EMILY’s List, one of the first outside groups to endorse Buono. “Being far to the right of the state you represent matters. Christie may couch it in more delicate terms than Cuccinelli, but the impact is the same to the women they represent.”
With only one Democratic woman currently serving as a governor, the stakes are high for Buono's campaign. But as the national Democratic Party, EMILY’s List, and other outside groups decide how much to invest in the race, Christie’s strong poll numbers will make her a tough sell.