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Opinion: Buono Needs to Hit Christie Where He's Vulnerable -- Property Taxes

Carl Golden | October 21, 2013

Voters don't seem concerned about the governor's national ambitions, why does the Democratic challenger keep trying to push that button?

carl golden

For reasons that continue to baffle most observers, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Barbara Buono is steadfastly clinging to the notion that vast numbers of New Jersey voters are so horrified at the prospect of Gov. Chris Christie seeking the Republican nomination for president in 2016 that they will turn against him and support her.

The first television ad of her campaign tries to tie Christie’s record to his attempt to appease the right wing of the national party and curry enough favor with the powerbrokers and donors that they’ll view him as someone who shares their views and philosophy.

Pouring precious -- and limited -- funds into an ad campaign to drive this message is questionable at best and a waste of resources at worst.

There exists no empirical evidence that voters are so disturbed by Christie’s future ambitions, whatever they may be, that they will flock to the polls on November 5 to express their displeasure.

Just the opposite, in fact, is the case: Polls consistently show that while voters are well aware of the persistent and loud buzz about Christie and the national media attention directed toward him, a healthy majority support a second term.

The Buono ad attempts to support her contention that Christie is paving his way for a run at the presidential nomination by citing his veto of funding for women’s healthcare programs, his cutting funds for Planned Parenthood, his opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage, and his veto of gun control legislation.

“I’m the only one running for governor,” she says, a line she uses repeatedly at every campaign stop and in her two debates with Christie.

With less than three weeks left, Buono has failed to make any significant headway. Christie’s lead continues to hover between 22 and 30 points, cutting across party, gender, and ethnic lines. A healthy majority expresses the belief that the state is heading in the right direction and that Christie is the candidate best able to continue that trend.

Buono insists -- again to the bafflement of most observers -- on soft pedaling the inter-related issues of property taxes, economic growth, and job creation, despite polling that shows that Christie’s handling of these issues has consistently fallen below 50 percent.

The thrust of her ad, with its emphasis on social issues, seems directed toward her party’s base, voters who agree with her that Christie’s record is unacceptable. Even so, a considerable chunk of those who identify themselves as Democrats continue to voice support for him.

It is only in the last few seconds of her ad that Buono refers to 400,000 unemployed New Jerseyans, but it comes across almost as an afterthought. Rising property taxes and the toll they exact on struggling homeowners don’t even rate a mention.

Her campaign seems obsessed with Christie’s possible national ambitions while giving short shrift to his only point of vulnerability -- property taxes.

She has failed to aggressively criticize him for cutting the homestead rebate program and for multibillion dollar reductions in state aid to local school districts.

She has failed to make it clear that the rebate and aid losses translate into property tax increases. She has failed to demonstrate convincingly that property owners pay for those cuts and that the Christie administration is responsible for them.

The governor, of course, responds by pointing to historic low rates of property tax increases and historic high levels of aid to education.

Buono, though, has failed to engage him forcefully and demand he defend his record. She has uttered comments almost in passing about property tax increases in double digits in some municipalities but abandons the issue quickly, leaving Christie’s explanation as the only point listeners remember.

There appears to be no recognition that Christie is not vulnerable on the issues highlighted in her ad, nor are voters apt to react positively to her charge that Christie can’t wait to leave New Jersey and head to the Iowa cornfields and the New Hampshire shows.

He may very well be considering such a course of action, but he’s not about to reveal his private thoughts or muse aloud about them, and voters here don’t seem to really care.

Granted, Buono suffers from an unashamed lack of support from many of her party’s leaders and her fundraising has been disappointing at best. And, if that’s not enough, she faces an opponent in Christie who is, perhaps, one of the best pure political campaigners in recent memory.

She is, however, singing to a choir of people who share her views, rather than trying to impress those who still might be drawn to her with a more potent message.

She needs a new hymnal -- one that’s delivered in an envelope with the return address of the local tax collector.

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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