Buono’s union backers, including those from the New Jersey Education Association, the teachers union that pumped more than $11 million into the state races, including Buono’s, were out in force, but resigned to the results. “We were behind a good candidate, but the election is over, and now we go to work,” said Wendell Steinhauer, the NJEA’s president. “The governor and NJEA can work together on some common goals, and we can do some good.”
One Democrat who may have come out ahead in the election was Milly Silva, the union leader who was Buono’s running mate as candidate for lieutenant governor. And after Buono’s concession, she hardly backed away from the launching pad she was offered, sticking around to do press interviews and saying that she “absolutely” planned to again run for office in New Jersey.
Silva, too, stuck to the message that the ticket’s loss was at least in part due to the party’s own dysfunction. “I hope when everyone wakes up tomorrow, I hope they will evaluate who we are as a party,” she said. “It was infuriating to see the party did not stand up for Barbara and I.”
Christie’s landslide victory has been projected by pollsters since Buono entered the race in December, but his reelection was not always seen as so inevitable. Just over a year ago, before superstorm Sandy smashed into New Jersey, killing dozens, leaving 360,000 homeless and millions without power, Christie looked formidable, but beatable by the right Democratic candidate.
Before Sandy, more people viewed Christie as a bully than a forceful leader. He was the most conservative governor in modern New Jersey history in an increasingly blue state, and his opposition to abortion, gay marriage, and stricter gun control laws ran counter to the socially moderate views of New Jersey’s independent swing voters. And while voters supported his efforts to make public employees pay more for their pensions and health benefits, they preferred a Democratic property tax cut plan over Christie’s income tax cut.
Sandy gave Christie the opportunity to pivot fully to a message of bipartisanship, starting with his embrace of President Barack Obama on the Atlantic City Boardwalk the week before the 2012 presidential election. The more national conservatives blamed Christie for Obama’s reelection, the more Christie’s popularity grew with New Jersey’s independent and Democratic voters. Christie’s attack on Speaker John Boehner and his GOP House majority for holding up Sandy aid further cemented his image as a governor who put his state ahead of partisanship.
With Christie’s popularity soaring and Buono already in the race, Newark Mayor Cory Booker, the only Democrat with the national image and fundraising ability to match Christie's, decided to pass up a tough fight against Christie to run as an odds-on favorite for the U.S. Senate in 2014 instead. One after another, Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) and the state’s Democratic congressmen took themselves out of the running, and finally, South Jersey power broker George Norcross gave Buono a backhanded endorsement in early February that essentially guaranteed her the nomination.
Most candidates move toward the center after winning their primary or cementing the nomination, but Buono never stopped running as the candidate of the “Democratic wing of the Democratic Party.” She tied herself inextricably to the public employee unions that Christie had demonized, and doubled down on her pro-labor strategy by selecting Silva, a Hispanic organizer from the Service Employees International Union, as her lieutenant governor on all woman-ticket.