Judie and I met with Barbara Buono yesterday and I’m going to attend another meeting in Montclair for her tonight. She has a lot going for her. She has an appealing life story. She is smart and personable. I agree with her positions on most issues. She is not facing serious opposition in the Democratic primary, so she won’t go broke early and can spend time defining herself and Chris Christie, rather than responding to attacks from fellow Democrats. Her main problem is the perception that Christie is unbeatable. I don’t think this is true.
It is certainly true that the polls have Christie riding high right now, with a large lead over Buono. I think most people would agree that this is due to two things. First, Christie got an incredible boost from the whole Hurricane Sandy thing. He was actually taking action to help people and doing it in a bipartisan way, which I think the public always wants to see. In a very Democratic state, it didn’t hurt him to be seen working with Obama. But the biggest reason that Christie gets good marks for his handling of Sandy is that it the one time during his governorship that he acted both genuinely and positively. Most of the other moments where we saw the genuine Christie during his term was when he was viciously attacking people or unions. But in October, what came through is that this is a guy who really loves the Jersey Shore and the State. His response seemed more visceral than political. Which brings me to Christie’s other great strength. As Jon Stewart jokes, “The Jersey is strong in this one.” From his love of Bruce Springsteen to the way he talks and even to his weight, he comes off as a Jersey guy.
So why do I think Barbara Buono can beat him? To begin with, his poll numbers will inevitably come down as the election approaches and the voters begin to figure out who Buono is. I suspect that even Christie would concede that his current polling is unsustainable. But there is much more to it than just that:
- New Jersey is a Democratic State that went for Obama fairly easily in the past two elections. If it wasa a party line vote, Buono would win easily. If Buono can get out the Democratic vote, especially in the Northern part of the State, the election will have to be close.
- While Christie did beat Corzine in 2009, one should not draw any big conclusions from that. Corzine was about as weak a candidate as an incumbent could ever be. Lots of people hated him and even the people who didn’t (and ended up voting for him) didn’t really particularly like him. He was one of the worst campaigners and public speakers imaginable. Unlike Christie, the Jersey was weak in him. The Democrats didn’t turn out at all and Christie got the votes of some of those who did. Even with all of that, Christie barely won.
- Christie’s policies have been terrible for the middle class and just God-awful for the working poor of this State. He has made it clear that he wants to protect the rich and powerful, using the typical, discredited Republican “trickle down” “job creator” talking points, while unemployment in New Jersey is among the highest in the nation.
- His administration has been a fiscal disaster. His budgets have been characterized by phony gimmicks, wildly optimistic assumptions and a refusal to face real questions about infrastructure, property taxes or education. New Jersey’s credit rating has been downgraded by reporting agencies, who have become increasingly vocal in their criticism of his leadership in this area.
- His decision to cancel the rail tunnel to New York is a disaster that cost jobs and hurt the State in the short run and even more in the long run. This is made even worse by his handling of the now-empty Transportation Trust Fund, which he used as a piggy bank and won’t do anything (like raise gas taxes even modestly) to re-fund it so that it can pay for infrastructure improvements.
- He has been terrible on environmental issues. His unilateral withdrawal from a multi-state environmental consortium is just one example.
- He is out of touch with the voters on marriage equality, women’s issues, the desire to raise the minimum wage (to a still too low $8.25) and gun safety.
- There are a lot of union member in New Jersey (38% of households according to studies). Their support of Corzine was, at best, lukewarm. But Christie has spent three years wildly demonizing unions and government employees. This may be red meat for the Republican minority, but I think this election will see a massive union turnout for Buono.
Christie’s has big structural campaign problem in that he has to try to run for Governor (with a lousy record in a Democratic State) while simultaneously running for President. To win the election this year in New Jersey, he has to cut toward the middle on a variety of issues in order to get enough cross-over Democrat and moderate Independent votes to win. But if he is serious about running for President in 2016 (and he clearly is), he has to keep close enough to the lunatic right or he won’t have a prayer of getting nominated. He is really whipsawed. For example, he might decide that changing his position and signing the marriage equality bill would be good for his campaign in New Jersey, but it might kill his chances of gaining a Republican nomination in 2016.
Although Christie is ahead now, you have to factor in that there is a long time to the election and something will almost certainly happen that will change the race one way or another. This is particularly likely with Christie, since he has no ability to restrain or edit himself. This quality of his is sometimes endearing, but it leads to outbursts and ugly moments. If any politician is gaffe-prone, it is our always combative Governor.
Finally, this is an election that is going to get a lot of attention across the country, because Christie has become a national figure and its and off-year without much else to focus on. I am sure that the National Democratic party would take particular joy in a Christie defeat. Assistance to Buono from folks like David Axelrod seems likely and has probably already begun. If the gap narrows, we are likely to see all kinds of people campaigning for Buono, including Obama himself.
This will not be an easy election for Buono to win, but Christie can (and really should) be beaten.