When she launched her gubernatorial campaign earlier this year, she was seen as simply the default front runner largely because Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-3) and Newark Mayor Cory Booker and a couple others chose not to run. But, state Senator Barbara Buono (D-18) has spent the year talking to voters and making her case to be the next governor of New Jersey because she feels she is the best candidate regardless of who was running. She has had to battle against Governor Chris Christie's fundraising edge as well as his name recognition. She has also had to battle against the "boys club" not exactly being strong supporters of her. She has lost multiple Democratic endorsements to Christie and many like Sweeney who are behind her campaign are less than excited about her.
The polls have painted a wide double digit lead for Christie and when on the trial, she certainly encounters doubt about her campaign. The national spotlight that Christie has garnered during most of his term as governor and his ability to project himself as the man who watched over the state after Hurricane Sandy has aided him a lot in 2013 as he entered the year with high poll numbers that most politicians only see very early in their term.
Buono was slated to possibly catch some momentum when Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) passed away right before June's primary. With a need for a special election likely in 2013 as opposed to 2014, the most logical date would be the same as the state's November election day. However, in a bit of an unconventional move; Christie scheduled an August primary date and an October election date three weeks before the November elections. The move would cost the state about $24 million dollars and also take someone like Booker off the top of the Democratic ticket which would have likely meant more votes for Buono. Booker has won the Democratic nomination and he would have provided a potential late kick for her. Having the special election earlier too might dissuade voters who only care about the U.S. Senate race to ponder if they want to vote for the state races including Buono and Christie's.
She has seemingly not let that or anything phase her. She talks often about her less than easy path to get where she is now. She rose from less than favorable circumstances as a young adult to become the state Senate Majority Leader post. However, after the State Legislature elections two years ago; she was removed from her leadership post largely due to Sweeney and South Jersey power broker George Norcross. That would be followed by being denied a spot to Charlotte, North Carolina for the Democratic National Convention and had to go essentially a visitor with a pass from someone else.
Despite not having a major name like Booker on the same ballot, as much money, as much name recognition, and fairly low poll numbers compared to Christie; her window for a potential victory is not completely shut. Christie might have been a major surge in his poll numbers late last year and early this year from Hurricane Sandy, but he still has his fair share of critics and weaknesses. For one, there are more registered Democrats in the state. Buono needs to touch upon as many as she can. Granted, some including many elected officials have already thrown their support behind Christie and thus it is urgent she locks as many as she can before some swing towards Christie. Also, voters are not exactly enthused by the price tag for the special election contests this year. Property taxes still remain a concern as is how strong the Jersey Comeback is compared to what Christie has portrayed it to be. Included in that comeback is job creation, spending by consumers, the unemployment rate, and the general direction the state is going in financially.
Another interesting point might be the use of money in the last couple races as big spending as not guaranteed major success. Look to Doug Forrester in 2005 as well as Governor Jon Corzine in 2009; the man Christie defeated. Christie certainly does not need to put tons of ads on the airwaves to let voters know who he is and without the same size financial war chest it does make it harder for Buono to get her name out to more people faster.
Each time it looks like this race is foregone conclusion and a Christie landslide, Buono has to fire back at critics. Unfortunately for her, some of those critics are members of her own party who feel she just quit. All she continue to do is paint the contrasts between her and Christie. It's an important strategy for challengers against incumbents: are you better off with the same person or with someone new. It worked to the Republicans' advantage in the 2010 midterm elections at both the national and local levels. While Christie is brash and in your face, Buono is calm and more relaxed. Buono is needing to use more grassroots methods to get the contrast between her and Christie out to voters. As polls have shown, the Hurricane Sandy bump has lessened slightly and she has slowly made up some ground in polls.
If there is someone who could relate to the feeling Buono is going through during this election it is former Governor Christine Todd Whitman who had to fight her way to the top in New Jersey. Whitman had her own poll concerns, had weak support from leaders in her party, and lack of funds due to the unlikelihood of a victory. Moreover, she can related to being looked at negatively at times for being a woman in the state seeking power. She would rise to become the state's only female governor. Yet, that did not stop the criticism directed at her in regard to her gender. Many who followed the 2008 presidential race could also spotlight Hillary Clinton when she had to balance being a woman in politics and balancing her emotions.
Yes, Governor Christie has strong poll numbers and has presented a record that is coming across as favorable to a majority of voters. But, at the same time; some of those dismissing Buono's campaign are doing so solely because she is a woman. Being a longshot might warrant some uncertainty and doubt, but her gender is something that in 2013 should not be as major issue especially since New Jersey elected Whitman twice.
Whitman challenged U.S. Senator Bill Bradley in 1990 and trailed by 30 points a month before the election. She largely ran against Governor Jim Florio's record especially his tax hikes in the state. She would rally back to only lose by 2% to Bradley in the end. Three years later, she would ride the momentum from that race into a victory against Florio when she trailed by more than 20% less than two months before the election. Both of those portray an image and path Buono is trying to recreate with less than two months to go. She would obviously prefer the latter election for Whitman to be the type of outcome she sees this November.
As Whitman would voice,
“You don’t give up because the odds look overwhelming."
Buono would state in regard to gender issue,
“Politics is very much an Old Boys Club, and as the first woman Democratic Party nominee to run for governor, some leaders weren’t very accepting of my challenging them. In the spirit of being brutally honest, I will say this: If you are forceful and a strong leader and you are a woman, they are more likely to see you as an inconvenient nuisance and not embrace your leadership, but if you’re a male, they are going to try to take you into the fold and embrace you."
However, as big as her gender has been, it truly has been the state of the Democratic Party behind that has made her fight that much tougher. This race would have been a challenge with a party and its leadership behind her fully. Obviously that has not been the case. She has had fights among her party over whom the Democratic Party chairman for the state would be; ultimately conceding her top choice for a more favorable choice among the party as a whole. She has lost Democrats from conservative and swing districts and cities as well as more liberal places like Paterson. And, clearly Sweeney and Norcross are not challenging the rest of the party to step up more. It has not mattered whether it be publicly or privately, they have not provided many words of encouragement.
As Debbie Walsh, Director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, would outline;
“One of the reasons they (party bosses) don’t like her is they feel they can’t control her. She’s just too independent. It’s tough for women in New Jersey. It’s partially how our system works where to get elected you have to be beholden to party leaders and they don’t want to lose control. If you want to watch what happens to a woman who stands up to them, look at the Buono race."
Whitman would add to her previous comment by exclaiming,
“You’re never part of the Old Boys Network, you’re never anybody’s first choice, and you know you’re going to have to deal with a certain amount of sexism every step of the way."
What Whitman and Buono lament about in regard to gender has some validity especially as you look around other states nationally and regionally. Look at New Hampshire, for example, where they have a woman leading the state and two U.S. Senators as well as a member of the U.S. House. New Jersey has had one female governor (Whitman) and never had a female U.S. Senator. It's been eleven years since a woman represented the state in the U.S. House. While New Jersey does rank 11th in the nation in terms of women represented in the State Legislature, Buono's race has showcased that there is still work to be done in the state for women to be successful in higher offices.