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What Barbara Buono’s Ad Says About Chris Christie’s Popularity

When Chris Christie retained his high approval numbers into 2013, it threw a wrench into the plans and expectations of the New Jersey Democratic Party. Because Christie was something of a political novice (he served as a county freeholder in the 1990s), they thought he might stumble early on. He didn’t. Because he started off taking on a pervasive New Jersey institution in the public education unions, they hoped he would prove too divisive for blue Jersey. He didn’t. Because, despite Christie’s fundraising, his party failed to make gains in the state legislature’s midterm elections, it looked as if he was running out of steam. He wasn’t.

So a gubernatorial election that was supposed to be celebrity Mayor Cory Booker’s perfectly timed transition out of Newark and into the governor’s mansion instead looked liked an intimidating challenge–especially in a state where high-level Democrats are rarely challenged. So Booker seems to have decided to move over to the Senate, to take Frank Lautenberg’s seat. But a Lautenberg retirement was supposed to clear the way for Congressman Frank Pallone, who would now face an uphill battle against Booker. And who will run against Christie on the Democratic ticket? It will be State Senator Barbara Buono, who has just put out an ad taking a self-deprecating shot at her own lack of name ID:

 

This situation, in which the New Jersey Democrats can’t field a candidate voters have heard of to run for governor, was simply unthinkable just a few years ago, when Jon Corzine was in office and Booker was waiting in the wings. Incidentally, Buono had a close brush with Christie previously when it seemed likely that Corzine would pick Buono to run as his lieutenant governor against Christie in 2009. Corzine passed on Buono in part because of her perceived ambition to be governor, which would have taken the Democratic Party machine out of the process of choosing Corzine’s successor and, most of all, stood in Booker’s way.

Ironically, almost a decade ago Buono opposed a plan that would have enabled Corzine to ascend to the governor’s mansion right away after Jim McGreevey’s resignation, because it would have allowed the state Democratic machine to go over the heads of the voters and the local party organizations. And that connection, unfortunately for Buono, brings us to the one reason voters outside her district may know of her. In 2009, the New York Times reported Corzine’s choice for lieutenant governor this way:

For days, it had appeared certain that Mr. Corzine would choose State Senator Barbara Buono of Metuchen, an expert on the state budget. But Ms. Buono was a protégée of former Senator John Lynch, whom Mr. Christie sent to jail for taking bribes.

As background, Lynch was a state senator and longtime mayor of New Brunswick, the county seat of Middlesex County, in which Buono’s district is located. He was also, as the Times story notes, corrupt. But the Times’s characterization of Buono’s relationship to Lynch isn’t quite fair. First of all, not to excuse anyone’s association with John Lynch, but in New Jersey–as in many states, I’m sure–with regard to party bigwigs, there are protégées and then there are protégées. In one sense, almost anyone in state politics in the dominant party would fall into that category at least superficially, as no one can really advance very far without the right approval. Then there are those who fall under the classic understanding of the term, with much closer professional ties to party bigwigs.

Buono stood up to Lynch twice (if not more). The first time was when she ran against Lynch’s handpicked candidate and won–her victory was at least a temporary defeat for Lynch. The second time was the aforementioned plan to benefit Corzine’s ambitions; it was Lynch’s plan. It’s also quite possible that that helped cost her the lieutenant governorship nod in 2009.

Because of all that, Buono can make a credible case that she is the former kind of protégée, if at all, and not the better connected kind. She can also make the case that she’s received scant assistance from the party machine to take her shot at Christie. But that will change, because the New Jersey Democrats will not abandon a gubernatorial campaign. And Buono’s relative independence from her party–and it is relative, not significant or absolute–is unlikely to benefit her in a general election. Not being corrupt is a low bar to clear (though unfortunately not low enough in Jersey) and might have been enough to beat Christie in 2009, but it’s less of an advantage against a popular incumbent of either party.

Additionally, beyond the humor of her first ad, it’s an acknowledgement that no one with any name recognition had any desire to challenge Christie. That will only serve to reinforce the existing narrative centered on Christie’s popularity.