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Op-Ed: Democrats Look Increasingly Desperate as Search for Christie-Challenger Drags On

Carl Golden | January 9, 2013

Running against Christie and losing big could cost Democrats up and down the entire ballot.

With each passing day, the air of desperation surrounding the New Jersey Democratic Party’s efforts to settle on a gubernatorial candidate grows thicker.

Senate President Steve Sweeney, himself a self-identified potential candidate, has travelled around the state meeting with Sen. Richard Codey (D-Essex) -- the man he deposed as Senate president in a bitter contest two years ago -- and Congressman William Pascrell (D-Passaic) County, to gauge the depth of their interest in challenging Gov. Chris Christie.

At the same time, State Chairman and Assemblyman John Wisnewski convened a conference call of the 21 county chairpersons only to get an earful of griping and grousing about a decision-making process that has gone on too long and was damaging and embarrassing the party.

With Middlesex County state Sen. Barbara Buono the only declared candidate, the restlessness of party leaders has begun to resemble a “Stop Buono” movement.

Open concern has been expressed by a few chairmen that Buono would run so poorly against Christie that the party was in danger of the unthinkable and unacceptable -- losing down ballot legislative, county, and municipal races.

Only by uniting behind a candidate stronger than Buono could such a disaster be averted, party leaders argue.

Their nervousness is well placed. Christie is in an extraordinarily strong position entering his reelection; his job approval ratings are high; a majority of people think the state is heading in the right direction; and he’s already raised more than $2 million for the campaign.

Party leaders worry that without a strong, well-organized and well-financed campaign, their local candidates could not withstand a Christie landslide.

A 10-point victory margin is manageable, but if the spread reaches up into the 15- or 20-point range, only the strong -- the very strong -- will survive.

Party leaders have been careful to avoid publicly disparaging Buono, but the spectacle of Sweeney openly searching for another candidate while county leaders plead for an accelerated decision-making process has only served to undermine her candidacy before it’s even gained significant traction.

When Newark Mayor Cory Booker, considered to be the strongest candidate to challenge Christie, took a pass in favor of running for U. S. Senate next year, he was criticized for keeping the party hanging for months while he made up his mind.

While some were convinced Booker would enter the race this year, the more practical heads in the party knew he wouldn’t risk his future -- potentially a very bright one -- by suffering a defeat at Christie’s hands.

Codey, considered second only to Booker in terms of mounting a credible challenge, continues to say only that he’s seriously considering a candidacy but has refused to establish any decision deadline. Sweeney has pretty much taken the same posture.

Both are loath to surrender what they currently possess to take on a cause which, while not hopeless, is highly problematic.

Codey’s been in the Legislature 40 years and clearly enjoys it, and Sweeney occupies the top spot in the Senate. Neither is eager to step aside, only to be remembered by history as a gubernatorial candidate who kept the margin of his defeat sufficiently reasonable so that the party’s other candidates on the ballot didn’t suffer.

While at the moment Christie seems nearly unbeatable, he faces issues of governance that could put a serious dent in his job approval rating in the coming months.

Economic growth remains anemic at best; unemployment continues to remain stuck well above the national average and higher than surrounding states; tax revenues have fallen so far short of projections that a deficit of as much as $750 million looms.

The prospect of cuts in the current budget as well as program reductions in the upcoming budget remains very real. Scaling back state aid spending, for instance, will exert additional pressures on local property taxes and, should that come about, Democrats will be quick to blame Christie for failing to exercise greater fiscal oversight.

Democrats will also fault the governor for failing to implement economic growth and job creation policies, while cutting social service programs and blocking efforts to reinstate an income tax surcharge on the wealthiest of New Jerseyans.

Whether Democrats can develop these issues and Christie’s efforts to deal with them into a coherent and ultimately successful campaign strategy remains to be seen.

Christie’s finely honed political skills have been on display for the past three years, and his ability to blunt Democratic charges against him remains strong. Moreover, his leadership in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy and his willingness to engage in rhetorical combat with national Republicans over federal aid to help recover from the storm’s devastation drew nearly universal praise for him as an individual who can place the public good above partisan politics.

Democrats in the meantime must fight off the growing perception of desperation, a perception reinforced as each day passes and the candidate search goes on.

Carl Golden is a senior contributing analyst with the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey.

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