By Dennis “DJ” Mikolay
With the partisan primary elections now only two weeks away and incumbent Governor Christopher J. Christie’s popularity still at rock-star levels, Democratic gubernatorial frontrunner Barbara Buono, the progressive State Senator who represents the Eighteenth District, has amped up her campaign appearances in an attempt to increase visibility.
Until recently, much of the general public was likely unaware a campaign was even being waged. Governor Christie’s popularity has overshadowed his challenger and her “grassroots campaign,” which, despite appearances on national television and appeals to liberal voters, has largely failed to gain traction. Thus far, Senator Buono has only raised $1.9 million, which will assure an uphill battle in challenging the Republican’s $6.2 million war chest. Of course, until recently the Democratic operation has been largely low-key; there were very few free public events, with most high-profile appearances seemingly geared towards a partisan audience, willing to make financial contributions.
Now, as the clock ticks toward the summer season, Senator Buono has finally attempted to elevate her campaign to public visibility. She recently launched a bus tour, which included appearances by Congressman Frank Pallone, and also appeared alongside Newark Mayor Cory Booker; both are “big name” candidates expected to enter the 2014 Senatorial race. She also released a short online video, a jovial attempt to educate voters as to the proper pronunciation of her last name. Witty though the ad may seem, it highlights a reality that should be alarming to Democratic supporters: despite a political career that spans twenty years, their presumptive nominee suffers from very low name recognition.
Though Senator Buono will almost certainly win the primary (with one exception, the Democratic leadership purged all other candidates, including a former mayor, from the ballot), her success this June likely won’t carry over for the next five months. Indeed, Democrats as a whole seem somewhat blasé about their gubernatorial hopeful. The unofficial rule seems to be that candidates for public office and incumbent legislators should keep their gubernatorial counterpart at arms length, lest the futility of a challenge against Governor Christie damage their own prospects. As of this week, even former Governor Brendan Byrne, himself a Democrat, has vocalized skepticism regarding Senator Buono’s chances during a Star Ledger interview.
Should Senator Buono increase her name recognition, which seems to be one of the goals of her campaign, a new problem will almost certainly arise; her legacy is inseparably intertwined with that of former Governor Jon Corzine, under whom she served as Chair of the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee. In a state like New Jersey, which suffers from outlandishly high taxes, a history of supporting higher taxation for what was largely viewed as a failed Administration will do little to bolster one’s standing with moderates and independents, many of whom fall into the demographics hit hardest by Trenton’s tax-and-spend addiction. The Democratic Party, which doesn’t really seem that interested in defeating Governor Christie, will need to move more toward the center, where, with a few regional exceptions, most Garden State voters seem most comfortable, if they even hope to dismantle Christie’s revolution.