Liberal Sen. Barbara Buono (D-Middlesex) and Republican conservative Steve Lonegan could not be farther apart on the issues, but they face the same challenge: How does an underfunded underdog dismissed by the media and campaign cognoscenti run against a political superstar who occupies the political center, holds a commanding lead in the polls, pulls in millions of dollars in donations, and gets millions more in free air time on nationally broadcast TV shows?
For Buono and Lonegan, Labor Day not only marked the beginning of the traditional political season, but also the kickoff of a critical month in which they must begin to close the sizable gaps in their races against Republican Gov. Chris Christie and Democratic U.S. Senate nominee Cory Booker, or risk the likelihood that prospective donors and volunteers will write off their chances in what would then become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
While most pollsters, political scientists, and the national media have already anointed Christie and Booker, several New Jersey candidates for governor and U.S. Senate have closed similar Labor Day gaps by Election Day. However, only one — Christine Todd Whitman in her narrow 1990 loss to U.S. Sen. Bill Bradley — faced as steep a challenge as Buono and Lonegan in running against a national celebrity with a similarly overwhelming advantage in money, name recognition, organizational support, and expectation of victory.
Debating whether Buono or Lonegan has a better chance at a monumental upset is a popular parlor game for political reporters, but it’s not a game for Democratic and Republican legislative leaders, who are focused more on Buono’s numbers than Lonegan’s.
A Lonegan disaster would simply reaffirm the conventional wisdom that a conservative ideologue cannot carry New Jersey, but a landslide loss by Buono to Christie could have disastrous consequences for Democratic majorities in the state Senate and Assembly.
Asked to compare the relative chances of Buono or Lonegan pulling off a monumental upset, Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth Polling Institute, quipped, “Would you rather be drowning in 40 feet of water or 20 feet of water? You’re still drowning.”
The most recent Monmouth University polls, conducted in mid-August after Booker and Lonegan won their Senate primaries, showed Booker leading Lonegan by 16 points (54 percent to 38 percent), while Christie enjoyed a 20-point margin (56 percent to 36 percent) over Buono.
Nevertheless, a good case could be made that it is Lonegan, not Buono, who is drowning in the deep end.
Signs of Life
First, while Lonegan’s margin against Booker is unchanged from mid-June, Buono actually has cut Christie’s lead from 30 points to 20 points.
“The trend suggests that New Jersey Democrats are coming home,” Murray said, noting that Buono’s lead among Democratic voters had climbed from just 59 percent to 36 percent in June to 71 percent to 21 percent in the most recent poll.
Second, while Buono has spent months fending off questions about her ability to raise enough money to mount a credible challenge to Christie, the Democrat actually is much better off than Lonegan.
While Lonegan raised just $221,000 in the seven weeks prior to the July 16 reporting date for his August 13 Senate GOP primary race, Buono raised more than $1 million for her primary campaign and another $450,000 between her June 4 primary and early August, qualifying for state matching funds that provided an additional $1.9 million for her primary race and will pump another $700,000 into her general election coffers.
Buono’s total warchest of over $4.1 million reported so far does not come close to the $6.874 million that Christie raised in his primary campaign, the $2 million he posted in his first post-primary report, and the $1.75 million spent so far on his reelection campaign by the Republican Governors Association. Meanwhile, the Democratic Governors Association has sat on the sidelines because it is concerned Buono cannot win.
However, Buono’s choice of Service Employees International Union vice president Milly Silva as her running mate may yet bring big union money into her race. And even though she is expected to fall well short of raising the $4.22 million that would draw down the maximum $8 million in state matching funds, she will raise enough to mount a significant TV ad campaign.
Lonegan, as a U.S. Senate candidate, cannot count on matching funds to narrow his fundraising gap with Booker, who has showed even greater fund-raising prowess than Christie, raising $7 million in just seven weeks from early June to mid-July on top of $1.4 million he had raised previously.
As former New Jersey director of Americans for Prosperity, the Koch brothers-created conservative advocacy group, Lonegan has access to a national conservative donor network, but he has yet to turn his challenge to Booker into the referendum on President Obama’s policies that he needs to draw national support.
What’s more, Lonegan’s Election Day is just over six weeks away, and is a special election for U.S. Senate only that is being held on a Wednesday, October 16 — a consequence of Christie’s desire to prevent the unknown Buono from running under the popular Booker on the November 5 general election ballot, with Christie consigned to the second line under Lonegan or another Republican.
The early political wisdom viewed that as a potential advantage for Lonegan, under the theory that his highly motivated conservative voters would turn out in what promised to be a historically low-turnout election.
But Booker demonstrated an exceedingly strong get-out-the-vote effort, piling up 59 percent of the primary vote in his August 13 special primary victory over Reps. Frank Pallone and Rush Holt (both D-N.J.) and Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-Essex). While pundits predicted a low turnout, the 365,000 Democrats who voted in the special election compared favorably with past primaries, and slightly less than 217,000 of them voted for Booker.
“The county organizations supporting Booker throughout the state put people on the streets in South Jersey, Essex, Bergen, Union, and other counties, but the Booker campaign put together a pretty extensive volunteer operation in just nine weeks to get out the vote, and that operation is going to be much more robust in October than it was in August,” said one Democratic operative who asked not to be identified. “There will be no shortage of volunteers or money.”
In contrast to the Democratic primary, Murray pointed out, fewer than 130,000 Republicans voted on August 13, “an abysmal turnout that was the lowest for any Republican primary with a statewide race [governor or U.S. Senate] since 1925, and the lowest for any primary election since 1999, when only 121,000 Republicans voted, but there were only Assembly races on the ballot.”
Lonegan said he didn’t work hard on turnout because he was confident he would defeat Dr. Alieta Eck, his unknown challenger, by the 80-20 margin he piled up.
“We don’t have Cory Booker’s millions, so we weren’t going to spend a lot of money in the primary to win with 84 percent of the vote instead of 80,” said Rick Shaftan, Lonegan’s longtime strategist. “We’re going to build a big ground game for October, and we’re going to have to do it by putting together volunteer organizations in every community to go door-to-door. We can’t rely on the Republican Party because it’s doing its own thing three weeks later.”
Like Lonegan, Buono won’t have Booker’s millions to put into an Obama-level ground game, but she will benefit from Booker’s comprehensive get-out-the-vote operation 20 days before she runs in the November 5 regular election to the extent that he drums up Democratic enthusiasm and that he can persuade his volunteers to stay on an extra three weeks to help Buono. Booker has campaigned often with Buono, including yesterday in South Plainfield’s Labor Day parade, while Christie is expected to keep his distance from the more conservative Lonegan on the campaign trail.
Buono also will be helped by the massive vote-by-mail and get-out-the-vote operations being put together by Democratic political leaders in legislative swing districts in South Jersey and Bergen, Mercer, and Middlesex counties that could be threatened if there are coattails from a Christie landslide victory, as well as by the “labor walks” put together through the New Jersey State AFL-CIO to encourage union voters to support Buono and other labor-endorsed candidates.
Voters in the November election also will be voting on a constitutional amendment to raise the minimum wage that Buono is counting on to pull out low-income, young, and minority voters who would tend to vote Democratic.
Lonegan, of course, is on his own, running head-to-head against Booker in a one-race special election without Christie or any other Republican candidates or issues on the ballot.
And while both the liberal Buono and conservative Lonegan believe with equal fervency that New Jersey voters agree with their policy positions more than they actually do with their heavily favored opponents, past elections and polling data support Buono’s argument rather than Lonegan’s.
Lonegan is trying to turn his Senate election into a referendum on Obama, the Affordable Care Act he pushed through to require 95 percent of Americans to have healthcare coverage, and other liberal Democratic policies that both Booker and Obama support.
But New Jersey has been one of the most reliably “blue states” in the nation since 1996, voting for every Democratic presidential candidate, including twice for Obama, and the state has not elected a Republican to the U.S. Senate since 1972. Whitman and Rep. Bob Franks (R-Union) came close in 1990 and 2000, but both were moderates in the mold of former Gov. Thomas Kean, while Lonegan is the most conservative Republican to run for statewide office since conservative Jeff Bell lost to Democrat Bill Bradley 35 years ago.
Polls consistently show that a majority of New Jersey voters agree with Buono and Booker — rather than Lonegan and Christie — in supporting gay marriage, legalized abortion, a constitutional amendment to increase the minimum wage, and Obama’s healthcare law.
The three races for governor and U.S. Senate in which candidates closed 20-point deficits after Labor Day were all campaigns in which policy issues played a major role. In what would have been the biggest upset, Whitman lost by just 2 percent to Bradley in 1990 after excoriating the popular two-term senator for refusing to take a position on Democratic Gov. Jim Florio’s controversial $2.8 billion tax increase.
Three years later, Whitman won by running on a 30 percent income tax cut she proposed in late September when she trailed Florio by 21 points. Democrat Jim McGreevey lost to Whitman by just 2 percent in 1997 after running a campaign focused entirely on auto insurance and property taxes.
Polls show voter concern about New Jersey’s highest-in-the-nation property taxes remains Christie’s greatest vulnerability, and Buono has said she will focus more on property taxes in the fall campaign. She has spent the bulk of the spring and summer blaming Christie for the state’s failure to recover all of the 250,000 jobs lost in the Great Recession and attacking him on social issues — a popular Democratic tactic in past U.S. Senate and gubernatorial elections.
The real problem for Buono and Lonegan is that many of those who disagree with Christie and Booker on policy issues don’t know that they do, but are voting for Christie and Booker because they are likable and/or interesting national political celebrities whom they have seen on shows as varied as “Oprah,” “The View,” and “Meet the Press.”
In contrast, half or more of New Jersey voters still do not know enough about Buono or Lonegan to form an opinion of them, according to the latest Monmouth University Poll, and neither Buono nor Lonegan have the money to build up their own name recognition or to tear down Christie’s and Booker’s positive celebrity.
“Booker against Christie for governor would have been a great race, and I personally think Booker could have beaten him,” the Democratic operative said. “On celebrity, name recognition and money, Booker vs. Lonegan and Christie vs. Buono are both mismatches. Buono has a better shot because New Jersey is a blue state, but it’s hard to see a way for either challenger to win.”