Barbara Buono mingled at a senior citizen’s picnic in northern New Jersey last week, introducing herself as Governor Chris Christie’s Democratic challenger while people eating boxed lunches listened quietly.
When Christie arrived at the park in Paramus two hours later, rows of tables emptied as the crowd surrounded him. Seniors pushed to get an autograph or a photo with the Republican and urged him to run for president in 2016.
The scene showed how Buono, outraised by $11 million and trailing by 20 percentage points in polls, has struggled to overcome the incumbent’s celebrity status. With six weeks until the election, more than half of voters still don’t know Buono, a state lawmaker since 1994.
Buono, a 60-year-old lawyer from Metuchen, emerged as the Democratic candidate this year after more popular party members, including Newark Mayor Cory Booker, opted not to challenge Christie. Booker instead chose to run for the U.S. Senate in a special election scheduled for Oct. 16.
“This race is going to be won in the last three weeks; it just is,” Buono said. “Because of the Senate race, we’re just going to have to refocus people on this election.”
While she’s managed to narrow Christie’s edge by winning back some Democrats, she’s been unable to connect with the unaffiliated voters who support him.
“Barbara Buono doesn’t have a snowball’s chance in Hades of making this a close race,” said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University polling center in West Long Branch. “Part of it has been Chris Christie, but part of it is that Barbara Buono never hooked into a message that could attract money or independent voters. She’s just preaching to her base.”
Buono was elected to the Senate in 2001 after serving three terms in the Assembly and on the town council. She rose to Senate Majority leader before losing the post two years ago amid Democratic infighting that followed passage of a bill pushed by Christie that overhauled pensions and health benefits for public workers.
Christie, 51, was the first Republican elected New Jersey governor since 1997. He ousted Jon Corzine in 2009 as voters rejected the one-term Democrat’s handling of the recession. Christie is seeking a second term in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans by about 700,000 registered voters.
In mid-October of 2012, Christie held a lead of 4 percentage points in a theoretical matchup with Booker by pollsters at Quinnipiac University. Two weeks later, Hurricane Sandy devastated the state’s 127-mile coastline, damaging 365,000 homes and plunging much of the state into darkness.
Christie presided over televised briefings on storm responses and embraced President Barack Obama when he visited New Jersey to survey the damage. Within a month, the governor’s approval ratings soared and a Quinnipiac poll showed him leading Booker by 18 percentage points.
Booker, 44, a rising star in his party, announced his Senate bid. Other Democrats, including state Senate President Stephen Sweeney and former Acting Governor Richard Codey, also abandoned potential runs for the Trenton statehouse as the chance of victory appeared remote.
Christie led Buono, 55 percent to 35 percent, in a Sept. 16 Rutgers-Eagleton poll of likely voters. More than two-thirds of independents, and 43 percent of Democrats, had a favorable view of Christie, the poll found. Fifty-one percent of voters had no opinion of Buono, an improvement of 3 percentage points since June.
“I give her a great deal of credit: She’s not only a fighter, but she’s courageous,” state Senator Nellie Pou said after appearing with Buono last week in Paterson. “She wanted to run for governor and knew there were other people within our party that expressed interest, but she was the only one that really stuck to it from the beginning to the very end.”
Christie, a prospective presidential candidate in 2016, is the only incumbent U.S. governor on the ballot this year. He has so far raised $12.5 million for his re-election, including $8.01 million in public matching funds. Buono has garnered $1.31 million, with $654,711 in matching funds, according to state Election Law Enforcement Commission figures.
“His biggest advantage, and the most difficult one to get over, is the financial one,” said Assemblyman John McKeon, a Democrat from West Orange.
Christie has cut a campaign swath through the state’s urban core, in places such as Newark, where he got little support in 2009. He’s spent more than $1.5 million on television ads. He has called Buono a “Corzine Democrat” who espouses costly programs that would lead to higher taxes or increased borrowing.
Almost 50 elected Democrats have endorsed Christie, and he’s been backed by party leaders including Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo.
“We are very comfortable with our position,” said Kevin Roberts, a spokesman for Christie’s campaign. “Any Republican running statewide is going to be swimming upstream. We understand and recognize that. It’s why we’ve been running such an aggressive campaign.”
Buono’s fundraising woes have limited her campaign ads largely to the Internet. As governor, Christie also had the advantage of starring in a $25 million, federally funded TV commercial aimed at helping the Jersey Shore recover from Sandy. Democrats have said those ads were used to bolster his re-election campaign, which Christie denies.
Buono said she is waiting until after next month’s special Senate election to make a big campaign push. Christie scheduled the Senate contest three weeks before his own. Democratic politicians said the move was designed to keep Booker off the ballot, which could have helped Buono.
Booker holds a 35 percentage-point edge over Republican Steve Lonegan in the race to fill the seat held by Democrat Frank Lautenberg, who died in June at age 89. That race is diverting attention from the gubernatorial contest, Buono said.
After Oct. 16, Buono said, her campaign will have TV ad blitz and try to capture more voters dissatisfied with the state’s economy, taxes and joblessness. New Jersey has 8.5 percent unemployment, 1.2 percentage points above the U.S. rate.
In a state that backed Obama in 2008 and 2012, Buono has said that Christie is too conservative. She has attacked his opposition to same-sex marriage and his cuts to women’s health-care funding. She’s accused him of catering to the Republican base ahead of a presidential run.
“I think people are finally getting to know the real Chris Christie and that veneer is starting to crack,” she said. “It’s clear his own interests come first.”
Masood Khatamee, 78, who attended the senior picnic in Paramus to see Christie, said he was unaware of Buono’s positions, even though he spoke to her briefly. A registered Republican from Alpine, Khatamee said he often crosses party lines to vote.
Khatamee, a clinical professor at the New York University School of Medicine, said he disagrees with Christie’s opposition to abortion rights, an area where the governor has diverged from even most Republicans in New Jersey. Even so, his “personable” nature papers over a lot of those ideological gaps, Khatamee said.
“This is a guy I feel like I have a personal attachment to and I like him,” said Khatamee. “I think he listens to people and I’m hoping he’ll go higher up to the presidency.”
Buono has struggled to boost her name recognition, as her opponent enjoys the benefits of incumbency, appearing at the opening of Panasonic Corp.’s new North American headquarters in Newark, strolling boardwalks rebuilt after Sandy and taking funny questions from students while visiting schools.
Melissa Finn, a 25-year-old health-care worker from Ringwood, said Buono would have a fighting chance if she could hammer home that Christie’s economic policies have favored the wealthy and that gains haven’t filtered down to all citizens.
Christie’s Sandy response has overshadowed policies such as education and health-care cuts that have harmed many in the state, said Finn, a registered Democrat who is voting for Buono.
“He’s helped with the shore situation and he’s done a good job supporting them and helping those citizens get back,” Finn said after speaking with Buono at the senior day. “That’s why he’s gained so much support and maybe that’s the reason why everything else he’s done has gotten so much support?”