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Worried Democratic Legislators Back Away from Buono

Democratic incumbents in swing districts stress cooperation with Christie in pitch to independent voters

Democratic Assemblyman Dan Benson's web ad touting his working partnership with Gov. Chris Christie.
Democratic Assemblyman Dan Benson's web ad touting his working partnership with Gov. Chris Christie.

It’s hard to find a Democrat more diametrically opposed to Republican Gov. Chris Christie than state Sen. Linda Greenstein (D-Middlesex).

Greenstein is a vocal proponent of gay marriage, funding for Planned Parenthood, stricter gun control laws, higher minimum wage, and full restoration of the Earned Income Tax Credit. She was an outspoken opponent of the pension and health benefits law signed by Christie that dramatically increased out-of-pocket costs for the thousands of public employees who live in her 14th District, which straddles Mercer and Middlesex counties.

Yet Greenstein’s running mate, Assemblyman Dan Benson (D-Mercer), is running online campaign ads proclaiming his bipartisan cooperation with Christie. “Working together with the governor, we balanced the budget and cut business taxes,” Benson says proudly.

Benson isn’t alone: Sen. Robert Gordon (D-Bergen), one of Christie’s favorite whipping boys, is running virtually the same web ad in the 38th District. The online ads for Sen. Jeff Van Drew (D-Cape May) proclaim how he worked cooperatively with Christie to keep the Vineland Developmental Center from closing.

Even Greenstein’s latest web ads stress bipartisanship and public service, and do not mention Christie’s opponent, Sen. Barbara Buono (D-Middlesex), at all -- even though Greenstein has campaigned alongside Buono more than almost any Democrat.

“It’s a question of numbers,” said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Center. “The polling data they’re looking at shows that there is no way that Barbara Buono is going to carry their districts. They need to get people who are going to vote to reelect Christie to split their tickets to vote to reelect them, and they want these people to see them as part of the Christie team.”

It is highly unusual for legislators of one party to ignore their own standard-bearer in order to stress their bipartisan cooperation with a governor from the other party. In fact, Murray could not come up with an example from previous New Jersey campaigns where legislators fled their gubernatorial candidate as they have with Buono.

But for Democratic leaders concerned about maintaining their 24-16 Senate and 48-32 Assembly majorities and for incumbent Democrats like Benson, Gordon, and Van Drew, the 2013 campaign is the pivotal race this decade. The state’s legislative redistricting commission approved a district map for the 2011 to 2019 campaigns that favored Democrats overall and incumbents from both parties.

If Republicans cannot win Democratic seats in 2013 with a national celebrity like Christie running at the top of the ticket with 65 percent favorability ratings against a Democrat who is being heavily outspent and is still relatively unknown, they won’t be able to win seats until 2021 when a new legislative map is drawn.

So for Democratic political establishment, it is in the legislative races – not Buono’s uphill gubernatorial bid -- that they are focusing their efforts.

The Fund for Jobs, Growth and Security -- a Democratic independent expenditure committee run out of Washington with the support of South Jersey powerbroker George Norcross -- is committed to raising more than $10 million, if needed, to protect Democratic legislative seats. This PAC can raise and spend money above the usual candidate limits.

The fund launched its first ad on network television in Philadelphia last week attacking Niki Trunk, the Republican challenging Democratic Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester), for taking a farmland assessment on her property, charging that it amounted to “tax loopholes for her, tax hikes for you.”

What is significant about the network TV ad in the nation’s fourth-most-expensive media market, is that Democrats have the money to tear down Sweeney’s opponent in a marginally competitive state Senate race. Yet Buono just recently qualified for state matching funds for her fall campaign and may not be able to afford a similar media buy for her gubernatorial bid until the final weeks of the campaign.

Murray suggested that Sweeney is trying to jack up his own margin of victory sufficiently to be able to create coattails for his running mate, Assemblywoman Celeste M. Riley, a two-term legislator who is considered more vulnerable than the powerful Sweeney and better-known Assemblyman John Burzichelli (D-Gloucester) in case of a Christie landslide.

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