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Worried Democratic legislators Back away from Buono

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.

Buono has cut Christie’s lead in the governor’s race from 40 points in some January polls to 30 points in June to just 20 points in the most recent Monmouth University Poll. But most of the shrinkage in Christie’s lead is due to Democrats enamored of Christie’s leadership during superstorm Sandy “coming home” to the party, Murray said.

Independents are more likely to agree with Buono on issues like gun control, gay marriage and funding for Planned Parenthood, Murray said, “but they like Christie personally and they credit him with getting things done.” Polls consistently show that the state’s independent voters want to reelect Christie, but they would prefer to keep a Democratic-controlled Legislature as a restraint on Christie policies they may disagree with.

Both independents as a group and New Jersey voters as a whole, consistently tell pollsters they want elected officials from both parties to work together to solve problems -- which Christie and Sweeney say they have done, in stark contrast to the partisan stalemate in Washington between President Obama and the Republican-controlled House of Representatives that threatens to lead to a federal government shutdown October 1.

It is those independent voters that are being targeted in web ads by Benson, Gordon, and Van Drew that Democratic political operatives released last week.

“You could expect ads like this from Senators Van Drew or Sweeney or [Jim] Whelan,” Murray said, referring to the Atlantic County senator who, like Sweeney and Van Drew, broke ranks with the majority of Democratic legislators to pass the pension and health benefits law that is Christie’s proudest bipartisan accomplishment. “But you would not expect ads like that from Democratic legislators in the 14th and 38th districts who stood up to Christie, he said.”

Murray said Greenstein is “the one senator in a contested district who could probably still run an opposition campaign against Christie and not have to worry” because her 14th District contains more public employees than any of the other 39 legislative districts. But the polls show that Buono is not carrying public employees by the overwhelming majorities that political experts expected, which is one reason that Greenstein’s running mate, Dan Benson, is running pro-Christie ads.

Gordon’s efforts to stress his cooperation with Christie in passing balanced budgets -- an empty claim because New Jersey’s budgets constitutionally have to be balanced -- and enacting business tax cuts three years ago, represents a clear recognition not only that Christie is going to carry his Bergen County 38th District, but also that the most politically competitive district in the state is going to be more competitive this year than it was in 2011.

Running against Republican Freeholder-Director John Driscoll, “Gordon was able to pin the failure of Xanadu on his opponent,” Murray noted, referring to the hulking, unfinished megamall at the Meadowlands Sports Complex. “He doesn’t have that issue this time.” In addition to the 38th District, Christie is expected to carry Van Drew’s 1st District covering Cape May and Cumberland counties, Whelan’s Atlantic County-dominated 2nd District, and Sweeney’s Gloucester County-based 3rd District.

However, Christie has yet to target legislators in these districts, all of whom were allied with him on the key pension and health benefits vote with the exception of Assemblyman Nelson Albano, a 1st District lawmaker who is embroiled in an ethics controversy over his efforts to circumvent a State Police stop for speeding.

It remains an open question whether Christie is willing to invest his political capital in attempting to win seats in South Jersey, the principal source of the “bipartisan cooperation” he stresses in his national political speeches, that Norcross and Sweeney are determined to protect at any cost.

The governor is more likely to continue going after Gordon in a Bergen County race he feels he can win, and to put an extra effort into Middlesex County’s 18th District. The 18th, Murray said, is another district Christie could very well carry and its Senate seat was vacated by Buono when she decided to run for governor. Incumbent Assemblyman Peter Barnes is running for Buono’s Senate seat atop the Democratic ticket against David Stahl, the current East Brunswick mayor who switched from the Democratic to the Republican Party.

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