Why Did Democrats Fold in the NJ Gubernatorial Election?

In the wake of Chris Christie’s 22-point drubbing of Barbara Buono in the New Jersey gubernatorial election, Matt posed a question on Twitter that is well worth asking:

“The mystery is not why Christie won. It’s why the Democrats (in NJ and elsewhere) never put up a fight.”

Indeed. As opposed to Terry McAuliffe in Virginia, Buono did not enjoy extensive campaign support from President Obama and other major Democratic players, and she was swept away by Christie’s fundraising, earning only $2.7 million to Christie’s $13.2 million. Over 50 Democratic mayors also broke party ranks and endorsed Christie, which bolstered his crossover appeal and suggested that Buono was too weak to even control her own party, as the Star Ledger pointed out in its endorsement of Christie. (See Matt’s excellent parsing of this endorsement for more.)

Was Buono hung out to dry by her fellow Democrats? Absolutely. Buono received a paltry $7,600 from two Democratic Governors Association groups this year, for example, compared to the $3 million that the DGA donated to ex-governor Jon Corzine’s reelection campaign. And Buono was not happy about this lack of support- at all. In her concession speech, Buono thanked her supporters who “withstood the onslaught of betrayal from our own political party.” Pretty vicious, venom-inflected stuff.

Buono’s disappointment with her party seems to be mutual. In an interview for NJTV News on November 7, state Democratic Committee Chairman John Currie gave a decidedly lukewarm evaluation of Buono’s campaign, suggesting the party had had little intention of providing her with substantive support. “Did her party let her down?” interviewer Mike Schneider asked Currie. “No… The party did not let her down. Maybe people let her down,” Currie said, an amusingly empty answer that elides the massive spending disparity and lack of party endorsements Buono received. “Did she run a bad campaign?” asked Schneider. “You know… she worked hard. She really worked hard,” Currie responded. Not exactly a ringing vote of confidence or approval.

On the one hand, it’s not surprising that Buono lost so heavily and failed to attract substantial support. Christie was enjoying double- and triple-digit leads months ago and it makes sense Democrat funders and party leaders would ultimately conclude the race was unwinnable. It’s also understandable why no other, stronger candidates entered the gubernatorial race, as it was a high-risk campaign with a low probability of victory that would only serve as a major career deterrent or even disruptor. That’s why Cory Booker opted for a relatively easy campaign for the late Frank Lautenberg’s U.S. Senate seat and why other Democrats, including state Senate president Steve Sweeney, opted to sit this one out. “It would have been tough for anyone to beat [Christie] at this time, right now,” Currie told Schneider, which is probably why so many Democratic mayors hitched their cart to his breakneck horse. It might have made sense for the party as a whole to try and defeat Christie, but no individual politician wanted to risk current job security to become a sacrificial lamb.

Although Democrats understandably backed down from direct fights against Christie, it doesn’t make sense why there was a total lack of national and state funding to oppose him, especially in light of his clear aspirations to run in the 2016 presidential election. If he’s able to make it through the Republican primary process unscathed, Christie will be an immense threat to Hillary Clinton or whomever the Democrats nominate- much more so than any other Republican currently in consideration. The NJ gubernatorial election would have provided the perfect opportunity for national party leaders to sow the initial seeds of doubt over Christie’s qualifications for holding a higher office. While it might have made sense for Democratic leaders to avoid lucrative support for Buono, this race was a good point to start making the case against Christie.

And what a case there was to be made. Mere days before the election, an excerpt from Mark Halperin and John Heilemann’s Double Down: Game Change 2012 provided a laundry list of Christie incidents or issues that, in total, convinced Mitt Romney’s team that Christie wasn’t fit to be a Vice Presidential candidate:

The vetters were stunned by the garish controversies lurking in the shadows of his record. There was a 2010 Department of Justice inspector general’s investigation of Christie’s spending patterns in his job prior to the governorship, which criticized him for being “the U.S. attorney who most often exceeded the government [travel expense] rate without adequate justification…” There was the fact that Christie worked as a lobbyist on behalf of the Securities Industry Association at a time when Bernie Madoff was a senior SIA official—and sought an exemption from New Jersey’s Consumer Fraud Act. There was Christie’s decision to steer hefty government contracts to donors and political allies like former Attorney General John Ashcroft, which sparked a congressional hearing. There was a defamation lawsuit brought against Christie arising out of his successful 1994 run to oust an incumbent in a local Garden State race. Then there was Todd Christie, the Governor’s brother, who in 2008 agreed to a settlement of civil charges by the Securities and Exchange Commission in which he acknowledged making “hundreds of trades in which customers had been systematically overcharged.” (Todd also oversaw a family foundation whose activities and purpose raised eyebrows among the vetters.) And all that was on top of a litany of glaring matters that sparked concern on Myers’ team: Christie’s other lobbying clients, his investments overseas, the YouTube clips that helped make him a star but might call into doubt his presidential temperament, and the status of his health.

While none of these “scandals” is by any means politically fatal, one can’t help but imagine a scenario where Democrats dug deeper to find this kind of information in early 2013 and started blasting it in sequential media blitzes throughout the year. It’s still probable that Christie would have won due to his popularity, his handling of Sandy, and the fact that all of these accusations could be defended against and swept under the rug. But it’s equally likely that Christie’s margin of victory would have been much narrower than it was in the end, given the potential for doubt these kinds of revelations would have raised in Christie’s character and preparedness for another term.

More importantly, broadcasting these attacks would have been a powerful and immediate offensive against a potential Christie 2016 run. It’s obviously too early to make any definitive predictions, but Democrats would be much better positioned if they end up facing a Rand Paul or Marco Rubio type instead of Christie, who combines a strongly conservative record (low taxes, anti-unions) with evidence of across-the-aisle compromise and practicality (not continuing to fight the gay marriage ruling). That Christie won 57% of the female vote and an astonishing 51% of the Hispanic vote has to have Democrat party leaders quaking in their boots. Investing in attacks on Christie now could have put a strong dent in these results and raised greater doubt about how successful a Christie presidential run could be.

And yet… nothing. National party leaders barely lent Buono a hand, and Christie rolled along all year with nary a challenge to his message of resilience against the storm and a record of bipartisan success. And that puts him in an excellent position for a presidential run. “Christie’s gigantic win positions him as one of the front-runners for 2016, and he came through this re-election campaign unscathed,” said Ed Rollins, who ran Ronald Reagan’s successful campaign for the White House in 1984. “He now gets a jump-start on any other potential opponents in lining up operatives and fundraisers.”

Perhaps the Democratic rationale was that it wasn’t worth spending money on a race that Christie was bound to win, given Buono’s lack of star power or ability to unite the state party. Or maybe it was based in the assumption that Christie will have a difficult time getting through the presidential primaries without doing major damage to his moderate standing, either through overabundant association with a tarnished GOP brand (Shutdown 2013, baby!) or through a fiery outburst that doesn’t play well with the folks in Idaho. Those are real concerns, and Christie could emerge with scars that leave him severely weakened for a fight with the Democratic nominee.

But it still seems like Democrats missed a golden opportunity to trim the governor’s wings and guarantee that he’ll have a harder time flying down the road. Christie’s reelection has launched him to the front-and-center of the 2016 race, and he’s now enjoying more recognition and national influence than ever before (see his upcoming ascendancy to chair of the Republican Governor’s Association). A greater anti-Christie campaign wouldn’t necessarily have made a substantial impact in the present, but it could have paid great dividends down the road if Christie’s current robust level of support is the engine to his continued rise in advance of the primaries. One has to wonder if Democrats will soon look back on the 2013 gubernatorial election and wish they could have done more to ground Chris Christie from the get-go.

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