Cory Booker, the popular mayor of Newark, New Jersey, who Democrats wanted to challenge Governor Chris Christie this year, cleared the field when he bowed out last month. Party leaders have yet to decide who should take his place.
Even Booker trailed Christie by 18 percentage points in a November poll as the Republican governor enjoys record approval for his handling of Hurricane Sandy. State Senator Barbara Buono, the only Democrat so far to declare her candidacy, was behind Christie by 43 points in a survey this week.
As Democrats fail to rally around a frontrunner, the Christie campaign has raised more than $2 million, eight times as much as Buono. The first Republican elected New Jersey governor since 1997, Christie has blocked Democrats’ efforts to raise taxes on millionaires, add funding for schools and women’s health and allow gay marriage. Inaction by opposition leaders may help him seal a second term and fulfill his agenda.
“It gives him a lot of freedom of movement,” Ross Baker, who teaches politics at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, said of a Christie victory. “The more potential rivals he has on the Democratic side, the greater the cacophony becomes.”
Besides Buono, possible challengers include state Senator Richard Codey, who served 14 months as governor after James McGreevey resigned in 2004 amid a sex scandal, and Senate President Stephen Sweeney, who came under fire this week after saying that Christie “prayed and got lucky” that Sandy hit because it detracted from his lack of a jobs plan.
Sweeney, 53, who apologized for the remark, had said he might challenge Christie if Booker passed. Sweeney told reporters this week that he hasn’t ruled out a bid, even as he plays a role in selecting a frontrunner.
Booker, 43, is a rising Democratic star whose efforts to turn around Newark have drawn investment from Wall Street financiers. On Dec. 20, he said he would run in 2014 for the seat held by 88-year-old U.S. Senator Frank Lautenberg, rather than face Christie. In a poll of Democratic voters released yesterday by Fairleigh Dickinson University’s PublicMind, Booker was favored over Lautenberg, 42 percent to 20 percent.
While Buono, a lawyer from Metuchen, is a credible choice to run for governor, the party wants to make sure it “puts the best candidate forward,” Sweeney said.
“Cory was the strongest candidate because of his national presence and his national fundraising ability,” said Sweeney, of West Deptford. “The time we waited didn’t help anybody.”
Codey, 66, who said he is still “doing due diligence,” has the greatest name recognition among the three most likely challengers. Even so, Christie beat him, 59 percent to 26 percent, in a hypothetical matchup, according to a Jan. 7 poll by PublicMind.
“No disrespect to Mayor Booker, but as long as he was out there, for the rest of us, the air was kind of sucked out,” said Codey, of Roseland. “The rest of us couldn’t make a move.”
New Jersey voters haven’t elected a Republican to the U.S. Senate since 1972 and backed Democrats in the last six presidential contests. Democrats control the legislature and outnumber Republicans by more than 700,000 voters in New Jersey, where 48 percent of the 5.5 million registered voters are unaffiliated, according to state elections data.
Christie had a 72 percent approval rating in a Quinnipiac University poll on Nov. 27, a month after Sandy, its highest ever for a New Jersey governor. He said on Nov. 26 that he will seek a second term to oversee the $36.9 billion rebuilding job.
The governor has feuded with Democratic lawmakers over tax cuts and missed revenue targets. The unemployment rate stands at 9.6 percent, close to its highest since 1977. Still, 52 percent of Democratic voters and 77 percent of independents approve of his job performance, the Quinnipiac poll showed.
“No one’s had the guts” to challenge Christie, said Matthew Hale, who teaches politics at Seton Hall University in South Orange. “A lot of Democrats out there are saying, ‘Why would I put myself through this, given where the governor is today?’”
Buono was among a group of Democrats that opposed Christie’s 2011 overhaul of public employee health care and pensions. After voting against the package as protesters parked a black hearse in front of the State House proclaiming it carried the “soul of the Democratic Party,” she lost her position as Senate majority leader.
Buono said the episode demonstrated her independence and willingness to challenge her party’s machinery. The senator, who announced her candidacy on Dec. 11, raised about $250,000 through Jan. 1, which she said exceeded her goals. Through Jan. 3, Christie’s campaign raised more than $2.1 million without holding a single public event.
In her 2011 Senate race, Buono said she recruited 10,000 campaign volunteers. Such a grassroots effort is the only way to offset Christie’s strengths, she said.
“It will have to be a campaign by everyday people and that takes time,” said Buono, 59. “The sooner the Democratic Party can coalesce around one candidate, the better it will be for the Democratic Party and that candidate’s ability to be successful.”
Christie, a former U.S. prosecutor, declared his initial candidacy on Jan. 8, 2009, as he trailed Democratic Governor Jon Corzine in opinion polls, 36 percent to 42 percent. He beat the incumbent that November, 48 percent to 45 percent, after a race that had Corzine defending his economic stewardship.
Corzine, who was a U.S. senator when he ran against Republican Douglas Forrester in 2005, announced his candidacy in December 2004. Codey said the timing of the announcement isn’t important to voters.
“At the end of the day, who cares when you file and on what date the decision is reached?” Codey said. “It’s all about who is in and who’s out.”
Sweeney estimated that if Christie is on track to spend $40 million in the election, Democrats need about $30 million.
“He gets the biggest microphone: he’s the governor,” Sweeney said. “So once you have a consensus candidate, that person winds up having the same-sized megaphone and the message is a lot stronger.”
The longer Democrats hold out, the more it creates an impression that Christie is unbeatable, said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. That sense of invulnerability may grow as would-be challengers opt out, he said.
“They planned on Cory Booker running and they clearly didn’t have a backup,” Sabato said. “It’s early on and people are writing this race off. But that might not be so wise: it’s only January.”