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.
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.