Barbara Buono, the Democrat trying to oust New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, is so low on funds that her campaign ads don’t reach voters via television or radio. To see them, you must go to her website, Facebook or Twitter page.
Buono, a 59-year-old state senator, trails Christie 3-to-1 in cash as she struggles to gain traction against the governor, a White House contender in 2016. With two weeks until the primary, she may become the first gubernatorial nominee to not qualify for the maximum in public matching funds, after raising less than half the amount needed.
The challenger has been unable to narrow Christie’s edge of more than 30 percentage points in polling, as more than three-fourths of voters remain unfamiliar with her. The Republican incumbent, meanwhile, is enjoying high approval ratings after his response to Hurricane Sandy and drawing record donations in New Jersey and as far away as California.
“She needs to make a sharper appeal to national Democrats that she’s the only thing that stands between Christie and 2016,” said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University polling institute in West Long Branch. Buono needs to show her party that “she’s the only thing that can hobble Chris Christie right now.”
Christie and all 120 members of the legislature are on the ballot this November. The governor has raised $6.2 million for his race through May 2, almost as much as the $6.8 million he collected in the entire 2009 election cycle. He has already taken in more than any other New Jersey candidate for governor who didn’t fund his or her own campaign.
Buono, a lawyer from Metuchen who has been a senator since 2002, became Democratic leaders’ champion after more popular party members, including Newark Mayor Cory Booker, opted not to run. Unlike Christie, she is accepting public matching funds for the primary under a system that provides $2 for every $1 raised -- but limits her spending to $5.6 million through June.
Through May 14, she has collected about $869,000 in private donations, which will get her about $1.3 million from the state. She needs to amass $1.9 million in qualifying donations to secure the full $3.5 million in public money available for the primary.
“Many donors are sitting back and saying ‘I have a finite amount of money to give to candidates, and why would I want to give it to someone who isn’t going to win,’” said Brigid Harrison, a professor of law and politics at Montclair State University.
Christie led Buono 58 percent to 26 percent in an April 24 poll of 1,112 registered voters by Quinnipiac University of Hamden, Connecticut. Two-thirds of the respondents had a favorable opinion of the governor, including 45 percent of Democrats. Seventy-eight percent hadn’t heard enough about Buono to give their opinion of her.
Christie amassed 1,044 donors who gave the $3,800 maximum, campaign filings show. Buono, in comparison, drew 72. Among them were Orin Kramer from Montclair, a general partner at New York-based hedge fund Boston Provident who raised more than $500,000 for President Barack Obama in 2012; and James Leitner from Montclair, founder and president of Wyckoff-based hedge fund Falcon Management Corp.
The governor’s donors include Mel Karmazin, former chief executive of Sirius XM Radio Inc. (SIRI:US), John Catsimatidis, the billionaire owner of Red Apple Group Inc., Kenneth Langone, the co-founder of Home Depot Inc. (HD:US); and Facebook Inc. (FB:US) co-founder Mark Zuckerberg, who hosted a fundraiser for Christie at his California home in February.
Republican fundraising in New Jersey has more than tripled since 2009, when Christie defeated incumbent Democrat Jon Corzine, a former Goldman Sachs Group Inc. co-chairman, multimillionaire and major political contributor. With Corzine out of politics, Democratic fundraising has dropped by more than half since the last governor’s race, according to the state Election Law Enforcement Commission.
“Jon Corzine was enormously important to fundraising for not just his own campaigns, but for folks at every level from local and county offices to the state level,” Harrison said.
Christie became the first Republican elected governor in New Jersey since 1997 when he won the 2009 race with 48 percent of the vote to Corzine’s 45 percent.
Christie’s calls for smaller government and lower taxes have made him a national Republican figure. His appearances on television, which include a comic bit on NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” and interviews about his weight-loss surgery, have also boosted his fame. The governor turned down requests in 2011 to run for president, and hasn’t ruled out a 2016 White House bid.
As governor, Christie also has the advantage of starring in a new $25 million, federally funded advertisement aimed at helping the Jersey Shore recovery from Sandy. Democrats have said those ads are being used to bolster his re-election campaign, which Christie denies.
“I hope what they do is bring people to the Jersey Shore - - there’s nothing political about that,” he told reporters on May 17. “I don’t see any advantage, due or undue, to me.”
The Christie campaign has spent more than $2.3 million on television and radio ads for this election. Buono’s campaign hasn’t run any.
David Turner, a spokesman for Buono’s campaign, said he “is not going to discuss strategy.” “We will have enough resources to be competitive in November,” he said.
In a new Web ad released today, Buono tries to teach voters how to pronounce her last name, which rhymes with that of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo -- not with the singer Sonny Bono or U2 frontman Bono. Buono then rolls her eyes and corrects the announcer who says her name wrong. The campaign will spend money to promote the ad on the Internet. Turner declined to comment on what it would cost.
Booker, a rising Democratic star who chose a possible 2014 U.S. Senate run over a Christie challenge, said the pace of Buono’s campaign and fundraising will intensify after the primary. Christie and Buono each face one lesser-known opponent in June.
The Newark mayor, who has headlined fundraisers and made stump appearances with Buono, said smaller, out-of-state donors who oppose Christie’s stances may be good targets for Democrats. Even gubernatorial races have become national events, Booker said after appearing with Buono at a May 13 news conference in Newark on gun violence.
“You’re going to see more and more candidates get traction because of small donors,” Booker said. “I think she’s going to have a lot of success with that because she has such a high-profile opponent.”
Buono has said Christie’s views are out of step with mainstream New Jersey and that some of his decisions, including vetoing higher taxes on millionaires, are designed to play to a national Republican audience.
Emily’s List, a Washington political-action committee that raises money for female Democrats who support abortion rights, has vowed to help Buono unseat Christie, who opposes the practice. The group, which is soliciting donations for Buono on its website, has not yet contributed to her campaign, according to the recent election filings.
A big chunk of spending on this election will come not from the candidates, but from outside groups that don’t have to identify donors, said Jeff Brindle, executive director of the Election Law Enforcement Commission. Such groups, which are prohibited from coordinating efforts directly with the campaigns, are on track to spend a record $30 million by November on the governor and legislative races, he said.
The outside group One New Jersey has so far spent $1.8 million on anti-Christie ads. The group is organized under the tax code’s Section 501(c)(4), which lets it avoid paying taxes on contributions and doesn’t require it to disclose donors. Joshua Henne, a spokesman for the group, declined to say who is funding its efforts. Henne is a former Buono spokesman.
“This is going to be a year in which independent spending explodes,” Brindle said in an interview. “It will be the big story of this election.”
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