The race to replace the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., has dominated the headlines in the Garden State over the last week. Cory Booker launched his campaign Saturday, with an assist from Bill Bradley. Democratic Rep. Frank Pallone jumped into the race Monday. Rep. Rush Holt, another Democrat, got in last week, and a fourth Dem, Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver, also plans to seek the Democratic nomination. The star-studded primary field is good news for reporters and political junkies but problematic for one other New Jersey Democrat: gubernatorial nominee Barbara Buono.
As the special election heats up, Buono's poll numbers remain decidedly cool. A Quinnipiac University poll released Monday shows her failing to gain significant ground on Gov. Chris Christie, trailing 59 percent to 29 percent. Asked their opinion of Buono, 56 percent of New Jersey voters said they hadn't heard enough about her. And to the extent that her name-ID is increasing, it's coming at the expense of her image. Though her favorability rating is up from 12 percent in mid-April, to 18 percent now, the percentage of voters who view her unfavorably jumped to by a larger margin, from 9 percent to 23 percent.
With fewer than 5 months remaining before the general election, Buono needs to increase her positive name recognition if she has any hope of turning the lopsided race into a competitive contest. Prior to Lautenberg's death, the gubernatorial campaign was the only major statewide race in the Garden State in 2013, ensuring that it would at least generate a lot of coverage, despite Christie's sizable early lead. Now the Senate special election -- and especially the Democratic primary -- threatens to emerge as the dominant political story of the year.
The problem goes beyond simply getting bumped off the front page. Having struggled to raise money at Christie's pace, Buono has been badly outspent on the airwaves thus far. But now Buono won't just be competing with Christie and his GOP allies for the attention of television watchers. The four Democrats running for Senate all will launch TV ad campaigns, and several of them may have the ability to spend significantly more than Buono: Pallone had more than $3.7 million in his campaign account at the end of March, and Booker's national celebrity and friends in high places mean he won't have any trouble raising huge sums of money.
Buono already faced long odds and a host of other problems in her quest to unseat Christie. Booker and the rest of the Democrats running in the special election won't make that task any easier.
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