Commentary Magazine


Topic: Barbara Buono

Why 2016 Talk Hasn’t Hurt Christie’s 2013

Cory Booker’s victory in the special Senate election held earlier this month to replace Frank Lautenberg was not a surprise. But to many, his margin of victory was. He struggled to meet expectations, and though the election was not close–Booker won by eleven percent–the clumsy nature of Booker’s campaign contributed to the perception that the Newark mayor was lucky he wasn’t contesting a competitive seat.

In contrast, Governor Chris Christie’s poll numbers remain remarkably strong a week out from his own reelection, especially for a Republican in blue Jersey. And today’s poll results, from Quinnipiac, highlight something else about the two elections: both Christie and Booker have national profiles, yet only Booker seems to have been successfully tagged as a “celebrity” politician. PolitickerNJ reports:

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Cory Booker’s victory in the special Senate election held earlier this month to replace Frank Lautenberg was not a surprise. But to many, his margin of victory was. He struggled to meet expectations, and though the election was not close–Booker won by eleven percent–the clumsy nature of Booker’s campaign contributed to the perception that the Newark mayor was lucky he wasn’t contesting a competitive seat.

In contrast, Governor Chris Christie’s poll numbers remain remarkably strong a week out from his own reelection, especially for a Republican in blue Jersey. And today’s poll results, from Quinnipiac, highlight something else about the two elections: both Christie and Booker have national profiles, yet only Booker seems to have been successfully tagged as a “celebrity” politician. PolitickerNJ reports:

Likely N.J. voters say 48-41 percent that they want to see Chris Christie run for president.

A Quinnipiac University poll released today shows that with the governor’s re-election seemingly in hand, respondents want him to run for the White House in 2016.

As for his race against Sen. Barbara Buono, Christie leads 64– 31 percent, the poll shows.

Christie gets a 65–29 percent favorability rating, as even 40 percent of Democrats have a favorable opinion, the poll shows.  Buono gets a negative 26–37 percent favorability rating, with 35 percent who don’t know enough about her to form an opinion.

“From the banks of the Delaware to the beaches of the Atlantic, New Jersey voters like their governor, Christopher Christie.  On the banks of the Potomac?  Less like the governor, but still a lot,” said Maurice Carroll, director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute.

At first glance Christie would appear to be more vulnerable to suspicions that he is tending to national aspirations. Republicans have been asking him to run for president for years now, and New Jersey is a highly Democratic state which tends to be hostile to conservatism. Yet Christie’s national profile hasn’t hampered his standing with NJ voters for a couple of reasons, one of which is unearthed by polls like this Quinnipiac survey: New Jerseyans actually want Christie to have national aspirations.

There’s logic to this: if voters in the state like Christie’s brand of politics, and he’d be term-limited out of office after two consecutive terms anyway, why not export the “Jersey Comeback?” Additionally, a Democrat who likes Christie might want to see him as the nominee of the other party, knowing that if the Democrats lost the presidential election he might be governed by Chris Christie again anyway.

That would be doubly true, presumably, for Jersey Republicans who would probably rather be governed by Christie than whoever replaces him and who would feel more confident in a general election with a candidate with crossover appeal and who could plausibly compete in the northeast.

So that’s one reason Christie wasn’t harmed by his national profile: voters want him to have that profile. But the other reason is that it is quite difficult to make the case that Christie’s possible national ambitions have caused him to neglect New Jersey. Today is, after all, also the anniversary of Hurricane Sandy’s destructive arrival on the Jersey Shore.

Though the storm hit close to the presidential election, Christie famously welcomed President Obama’s presence and praised the government’s response in true bipartisan–or, rather, nonpartisan–spirit. His response to the storm’s damage won justified plaudits from all corners of the state, but especially because it put to rest the idea that he couldn’t focus on his responsibilities as governor with the national spotlight calling. His response to Sandy was famous for how it riled the national GOP and needled congressional conservatives over funding.

That may hold him back in a Republican primary contest, of course. But it obviously wasn’t a drag on his gubernatorial reelection hopes.

There is also one more, less tangible aspect to Christie’s connection with the state’s voters: he is not shy about his genuine love for New Jersey. He gushes about Springsteen, but as I noted in 2011, a Fairleigh Dickinson survey found that Christie was more closely associated with New Jersey in the minds of the state’s inhabitants than even The Boss. At the time, the director of the poll remarked: “I was surprised because no person has ever had enough mentions to make the list — not Sinatra, not Springsteen, not Tony Soprano and not even Snooki.”

Few figures seem to embrace their Jerseyness the way Christie does. When Christie appeared on the Daily Show, Jon Stewart tried to shame Christie for the harsh ways he sometimes talks to his political antagonists. Christie responded: “I’m from New Jersey and so are you, and we don’t mince words.”

Of course, what has served him well in New Jersey could complicate the picture nationally. Conservative primary voters resent Christie’s embrace of the president and criticism of conservative darlings like Rand Paul, and Democrats who like Christie now may not be thrilled if a national primary reawakens them to his conservatism. Yet whatever the right’s beef with Christie’s move to the center, he is currently a pro-life fiscal conservative with a thirty-three point lead in New Jersey, a feat not so easy to dismiss.

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The Christie-Booker Expectations Game

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie took some heat from conservatives earlier this year for his decision to schedule the special Senate election for the late Frank Lautenberg’s seat a few weeks earlier than the gubernatorial election. It was a pragmatic move for Christie: Cory Booker was going to be the Democratic Senate candidate and probably sail to victory. For Christie, having his own reelection separate from Booker’s Senate election would ensure that any extra turnout generated by Booker’s campaign would not also be casting a vote that same day (possibly) against Christie.

This put Republicans vying for Lautenberg’s seat against Booker at a disadvantage, but no one thought it would be close enough to matter either way. In contrast, because New Jersey is a solid blue state, Christie would want to take no chances. But a funny thing happened on the way to the forum. Booker’s lead in the polls has slipped enough to worry his supporters and inspire Michael Bloomberg to dump buckets of money into Booker’s campaign coffers, even while Booker’s opponent, former Bogota mayor Steve Lonegan, seemed to be left by his party to fend for himself.

The whole election season has thus been somewhat confusing for outsiders. But anyone seeking to understand why Christie has soared while Booker has tumbled–in New Jersey of all places–could do worse than watch this brief clip from last night’s gubernatorial debate between Christie and his Democratic opponent, State Senator Barbara Buono:

                

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New Jersey Governor Chris Christie took some heat from conservatives earlier this year for his decision to schedule the special Senate election for the late Frank Lautenberg’s seat a few weeks earlier than the gubernatorial election. It was a pragmatic move for Christie: Cory Booker was going to be the Democratic Senate candidate and probably sail to victory. For Christie, having his own reelection separate from Booker’s Senate election would ensure that any extra turnout generated by Booker’s campaign would not also be casting a vote that same day (possibly) against Christie.

This put Republicans vying for Lautenberg’s seat against Booker at a disadvantage, but no one thought it would be close enough to matter either way. In contrast, because New Jersey is a solid blue state, Christie would want to take no chances. But a funny thing happened on the way to the forum. Booker’s lead in the polls has slipped enough to worry his supporters and inspire Michael Bloomberg to dump buckets of money into Booker’s campaign coffers, even while Booker’s opponent, former Bogota mayor Steve Lonegan, seemed to be left by his party to fend for himself.

The whole election season has thus been somewhat confusing for outsiders. But anyone seeking to understand why Christie has soared while Booker has tumbled–in New Jersey of all places–could do worse than watch this brief clip from last night’s gubernatorial debate between Christie and his Democratic opponent, State Senator Barbara Buono:

                

Christie has natural political skills, sharpened by being a conservative in a blue state. Though Booker is personable, he is struggling to make his case to a sympathetic electorate, as the New York Times explained in its story about Bloomberg’s rescue mission:

But the Senate campaign Mr. Booker, a Democrat, is running in New Jersey — at times sputtering, unfocused and entangled in seemingly frivolous skirmishes over Twitter messages involving a stripper — has unnerved his supporters, who thought that a robust and unblemished victory over his Republican opponent, Steve Lonegan, would catapult him onto the national stage. …

Mr. Booker’s bumpy campaign and shrinking lead in the polls are all the more unsettling to Democratic Party officials because Mr. Lonegan is a political anomaly in the blue-hued state: a Tea Party conservative who describes himself as a “radical,” opposes abortion even in cases of rape and incest, cheers the current shutdown of the federal government and has relied on polarizing right-wing figures like Sarah Palin and Rick Perry as campaign surrogates.

Mr. Lonegan, despite his ideological alignment, appears to have tapped into lingering doubts about whether Mr. Booker can translate his outsize, self-promotional persona, so popular with the Democratic base, into the rigors of a highly disciplined campaign.

This is familiar territory; the press last year began wondering aloud whether Booker had enough substance for the national stage, and they apparently never got a satisfactory answer. It should be noted that Booker is still likely to win, and by a healthy margin: a double-digit victory is no nail-biter. But he’s losing the expectations game. “This should be a 20-point lead and not anything less than that,” Monmouth University pollster Patrick Murray told the Times.

Democrats were unhappy when Booker decided not to challenge Christie and instead run for Senate, thereby leaving the Democrats without a formidable gubernatorial candidate and with a glut of candidates for a Senate seat any of them would win. He also ended the Senate hopes (for now) of Representative Frank Pallone, who was Lautenberg’s chosen successor (not that that entitles him to the seat).

But those same Democrats might be more understanding now. Were Booker to stumble and lose to Christie, his career would be in trouble and New Jersey Democrats would lose a popular voice on chummy Sunday morning roundtables. Instead, he will join New Jersey’s senior senator, Bob Menendez, on those roundtables. The two will make quite a pair for New Jersey’s Democratic representation in the media; Booker is charismatic while Menendez is bland, but Menendez possesses actual influence (he is the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee) while Booker will give the affectation of such, which to Beltway media is basically the same thing.

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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:

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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.

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