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Challenging Christie

by C.J. Mittica
A look at the Democrats from our area who might be poised to unseat the governor in 2013.

His approval ratings are strong. His profile has never been higher. State politicos from both sides readily throw out compliments like “agile politician” and “transformative figure.” Right now, it would appear the 2013 New Jersey gubernatorial race is clearly Chris Christie’s to lose.

So even though New Jersey holds 700,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans, it’s still going to be an uphill climb for whomever is named the Democratic nominee. As a result, many politicians have hedged on openly inserting themselves into the race. “This is how you know your foe is formidable, when you don’t hear a lot of chatter about people posturing to get to the front of the line for consideration,” says Jay Lassiter, a blogger for Blue Jersey and consultant based in Cherry Hill.

And the task is even more challenging for the most successful South Jersey politicians.

“Most people assume it’s impossible to win as governor from South Jersey, because the vote is relatively small here,” says Dr. Bruce E. Caswell, a professor of political science at Rowan University. “And anyone from the other part of the state starts with a larger base.” Jim Florio is the only governor in recent memory who hailed from this part of the state.

What will it take to make a successful run? “The key to winning a Democratic primary statewide is to have the money and to get the lines in the right counties,” says Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University.

The $20-25 million necessary to run for governor is the cost of elevating a profile statewide (including the expense of paying for airtime in the New York and Philadelphia media markets). The “lines” refer to the party-endorsed voting line per county that shows up first on the ballot; in Camden County, for example, 86 percent of primary voters choose the straight party line. That requires broad appeal to get endorsed in as many counties as possible.

With all that in mind, the chances of a South Jersey politician winning the Democratic nomination is still within reach—particularly in a primary that could be wide open. Who from this area has a chance? Let’s take a look at the names:

State Senator Stephen Sweeney
Strengths: As Brian McGovern, a Voorhees resident affiliated with the conservative group Save Jersey, puts it, “If there was a ‘my turn’ candidate … he would be the most likely southern candidate to run against Chris Christie.” While most New Jersey legislators toil in anonymity, Sweeney’s role as Senate president since 2010 has elevated his profile across the state—a key factor in winning votes from the north. His brawler, blue collar image will play well for voters who admire those qualities in the current governor. “I feel like Steve Sweeney is really starting to find his niche as Senate president,” Lassiter says. “He’s doing a lot better this year than he was in the beginning.”

Weaknesses: Sweeney has shown a willingness to reach across the aisle on key issues he’s championed, the most recent being pension reform. But many wonder if aligning with the governor on certain key issues will hurt the Senate president in the short term. “He’ll be able to paint a nice picture of himself for a general election,” says Chris Russell, a South Jersey Republican campaign consultant. “In a Democratic primary, where more liberal Democrats have such venom for this governor, I think it will be used against him.” Plus, Sweeney created a federal exploratory committee in January, which may indicate he has eyes on a U.S. Senate run instead of the governor’s race.

Outlook: He’s highest on the Democrat pecking order in the region, and a charge at the governor’s seat would be a logical next step for him. Were he to enter, he would have just as good a chance as any other top candidate.

Assemblyman Lou Greenwald
Strengths: A politician whose star is on the rise, Greenwald has a number of things going for him: a new high-profile role as Assembly majority leader, a sizable financial war chest, and a Wall Street-slick look that plays well against Christie’s burly image. “Greenwald is a skilled politician,” McGovern says, “and if the Democrats, for lack of a better term, have a weak field, it would be smart for him to get in. He could be successful in getting the nomination.” And though the state budget has been a particularly touchy issue, Greenwald’s decade as Assembly budget chair show he has some legislating bona fides.

Weaknesses: Name recognition means everything in a New Jersey gubernatorial race —and not many voters know who Greenwald is. Even in his new role as majority leader, a year may not be enough time to raise it to match his party competitors, let alone Christie’s level. Plus, Greenwald remains behind Sweeney in the party’s hierarchy. “His profile is nowhere near Senate President Sweeney,” says Russell, who consulted on Jon Runyan’s successful 2010 campaign for Congress. “This is a state where legislators in many ways are anonymous.”

Outlook: There’s a collective sense that Greenwald’s time has not come yet. But were he to throw his hat into the ring, his chances can’t be entirely written off.

Congressman Rob Andrews
Strengths: Now into his ninth term as a U.S. Congressman, An­drews is a well-regard­ed politician who is firmly entrenched with­in his own district. That strong base allows him to fundraise easily and retain his congressional office, even if he were to lose in the gubernatorial state primary. Though not all of it is positive, he does have stronger name recognition across the state from his failed primary bids for governor in 1997 and U.S. senator in 2008. “The candidate I think would be most successful taking on Chris Christie is Rob Andrews,” says Lassiter, who has worked on campaigns for the congressman in the past. “He’s damn smart, and he can match Christie’s wit, stagecraft and his presence.”

Weaknesses: Will Andrews run? That’s the pressing question, given his two past failed bids. Some argue that Andrews has learned from his past runs, and the electorate won’t hold it against him. “I don’t think it will really affect [his chances]. We’ve elected people who ran [and lost] a couple times,” says Dworkin, citing Florio and Tom Kean as just two examples of candidates who lost elections before winning the governorship.

Outlook: Despite his long history as a congressman and universal regard for his political skills, it seems Andrews has too much to lose to enter the governor’s race. Consider his candidacy unlikely.

The Competition

Contender for the governor’s office, or sacrificial lamb to Chris Christie? That’s the question to be determined about the Democratic nominee for the 2013 race. In addition to the trio of names from South Jersey, many other state candidates are speculated for a possible run. Here are four of the favorites.

State Senator Dick Codey: He certainly has the name recognition as well as the experience, having served as acting governor for more than a year following Jim McGreevey’s resignation. But can he win the support of the party power brokers he’s at odds with?

State Senator Barbara Buono: As the candidate farthest to the left, she could excel in a primary and be a visible foil to Christie. But the state senator is also not running for re-election, and may have trouble carrying her home county.

Mayor Cory Booker: Young and dashing, the mayor of Newark is seen as a political star on the rise. While a run could potentially electrify the Democratic constituency, he lacks a firm base and aligns closely with Christie on many key issues.

Assemblyman John Wisniewski: The state party chairman has been vocal in his criticism of Christie, and brings strong qualities to the table. He may have to fight hard to win his own county of Middlesex over Buono, let alone the rest of the state.

Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 8, Issue 12 (March, 2012).
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