Jersey Unsure: Democrats Missing Out on Chris Christie Challengers

Elahe Izadi

By most measures, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie looks unstoppable: A Republican with a sky-high approval rating in a blue state, star power and high-profile liberal-leaning backers, like Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. And that’s left Democrats in an awkward position come November 2013.

One by one, the slate of possible Democratic contenders have bowed out. Newark Mayor Cory Booker will pursue an already-Democratic Senate seat. Once popular former Gov. Richard Codey, thought to be one of his party’s best shots against Christie, said last week he’s not running for personal reasons – which include running his funeral home business. News came this week that Senate President Steve Sweeney will likely stick with a re-election bid to the state legislature rather than make a run for Christie’s job. And Rep. Bill Pascrell won’t be running for governor, either. It’s the job no one seems to want.

The last man -- or woman, rather -- standing is state Sen. Barbara Buono, once considered an outsider who has locked up the backing of Pascrell and some powerful party chairmen. But while she now has the party’s de facto blessing, she still has quite the task ahead of her; a Quinnipiac poll released last week shows voters preferring Christie in a matchup against Buono, 63 to 22 percent.

"I’ve been jilted twice now, with Booker and Codey. Hopefully the third time’s a charm," state Sen. Raymond Lesniak told the Star-Ledger last week. He also said that Buono’s got some weakness against Christie: "No name identification is the biggest hurdle to overcome, and not having the financial resources to climb that mountain.”

Christie’s approval rating is up to 74 percent, according to Quinnipiac, which also found 68 percent of voters say Christie deserves to be re-elected. Christie has $2.14 million in his campaign fund, while Buono’s got $215,000. News of the Zuckerberg fundraiser prompted the Democratic Governors Association to post a petition on its site, calling for Zuckerberg to cancel the fundraiser. By the following day, it had been taken down, while Zuckerberg hasn’t budged on his position.

To be sure, Christie is a Republican in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans by some 700,000 voters and President Obama won by 18 points. But Christie has deftly cast himself as a no-nonsense governor who lately has been willing to buck his national party.

Democrats aren't conceding the New Jersey governor's race, but they will need to balance the desire of scoring hits against a national figure and spending resources more wisely in the other, more-winnable gubernatorial contest this year in Virginia. There’s a general expectation among Democrats that Christie’s approval ratings, thought to have received a post-Sandy bump, will even out. Privately, Democratic operatives admit Buono is the clear underdog but also don't want to give Christie a pass. “It’d be foolish for Republicans to somehow think this race is in the bag,” says one Democratic operative with New Jersey ties. “Democrats in New Jersey and outside of New Jersey are pretty committed to beating Chris Christie.”

Come campaign season, Democrats will zero in on Christie’s record on issues such as guns and gay rights, as well as the economy. DGA communications director Danny Kanner says Christie’s “record is one of failure: higher unemployment, foreclosures, and property taxes paired with gross fiscal mismanagement,” Kanner says. “Democrats will nominate a candidate who will take the fight to Christie on job creation, middle class security, and high-quality education.”

But will Democrats, come this fall, put their money where their mouth is?  Time will tell.