Now What?

The “uncertainty” of New Jersey’s Democratic gubernatorial contest is over.  I use quotes because this is pretty much where most people thought we would end up after Cory Booker declined to run.  State Senator Barbara Buono is the presumptive nominee with the public support of every major Democratic player in New Jersey.  Now what?

My unsolicited advice to Sen. Buono is to run a losing campaign. 

Before I get to that, let’s review what’s at stake for Garden State Democrats.  Last year, we saw that a 20 point Democratic victory at the top of the ticket could take out Republican incumbents at the county and local level.   A 10, or even 15, point win probably would not have had that effect.

Remember that no state Republican has broken 50% since Gov. Tom Kean’s reelection landslide in 1985 (George H.W. Bush’s 56% presidential showing in 1988 notwithstanding).  Chris Christie’s 3.5 percentage point win in 2009 is the best a Republican has performed statewide since then.  Christie Whitman won by about 1 percentage point in both of her gubernatorial runs.

Now, imagine that Chris Christie can win re-election by a similar 20 point spread.  Democratic seats in the legislature and at the county and local levels would suddenly be in jeopardy.

Democratic office holders could probably survive a 5 or even 10 point Christie win without breaking a sweat. That outcome looked probable before Superstorm Sandy hit.  Now we have a whole new ball game.

Down ballot races rely on a minimal showing at the top of the ticket.  Garden State voting patterns have certainly become more Democratic.  It is unlikely that Christie can replicate Tom Kean’s 21 county wipeout.  But Buono will still have to run a flawless campaign to get the margin within single digits.

If it ends up a 20 point victory for Christie, then down ballot Democrats could fall like dominoes.  This is coming from a guy who said the legislative map locked in Democratic control of the legislature even before Alan Rosenthal cast the deciding vote.  But I – and every other observer of state politics – never really entertained the possibility that a Democratic gubernatorial candidate could be fighting just to reach 40% of the vote.

[By the way, if you want to know how New Jersey Democrats got to this point, Steve Kornacki wrote an insightful, if a little gushy about Dick Codey, history of the party’s last 15 years.]

Some Democratic leaders have been vocally supportive of Buono., while others have been tepid.  It’s the latter group that holds the power in Trenton.  There is an outside – but very real – possibility that the Democrats could lose control of one or both chambers of the legislature.  The real irony, though, is that the Democrats could retain control, but the South Jersey bloc could lose its power within the leadership if two or three of these legislators go down to defeat. 

In the event of a Christie landslide, most of the vulnerable seats will be in South Jersey.  Not only in districts 1 and 2, but even Senate President Steve Sweeney’s seat in district 3.  His winning margin in 2011 was not overwhelming and Christie performed especially well in Gloucester County in 2009.

This means that George Norcross will direct all his resources to his own backyard.  Rather than help his party’s gubernatorial nominee, he will run a 7-district localized campaign that treats the legislature as the top of the ticket.

This is why Barbara Buono has to run to lose.  Her political future depends on it.  So here is my completely unsolicited advice.

Candidates with a chance of winning have a tendency to pull their punches.  They are afraid of offending one group of voters or another – or of hurting future political opportunities if they do lose.

This penchant towards timidity can water down a candidate’s message and brand.   In a race where voters are predisposed to go with the incumbent, this trait gets translated as a lack of leadership.

If Sen. Buono tries too hard to be seen as a viable candidate – particular in order to set herself up for a future run in 2017, for instance – she is likely to fail.  It’s not as if she’s a favorite of the party bosses now.  A 10 to 15 point loss is unlikely to improve her standing on that front.

The best way for Sen. Buono to make something of this quixotic effort is to treat it that way – to tilt at the political windmills.   

So far the Buono for Governor campaign has not set the world on fire.   There have been some missteps with the press.  For example, there was a lack of press availability after Gov. Christie’s State of the State address and scheduling an official campaign kick-off on Saturday – the day before the Super Bowl no less.

That strategy may have worked in 1993, but this is a completely different media environment.  Weekday radio and TV coverage is more valuable as is the Internet news feed that most people will see at the office but not on the weekend.  The Saturday kickoff is an old-fashioned approach to the media, which also suggests a staid approach to the campaign in general.

So, Sen. Buono, let ‘er rip.  You’ve got nothing to lose – except the election of course.  But at least it will make the campaign more interesting for those of us who have to cover it.

[Disclaimer: All advice given with tongue firmly planted in cheek.]

"It’s not a political environment that’s particularly warm for incumbents, but it looks like Booker has little to be worried about as the campaign season draws to a close."
—Krista Jenkins, poll director and professor of political science, FDU.