New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez, left, listens along with New Jersey first lady Mary Pat Christie, right, as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie greets supporters during a campaign stop in Hillside, N.J., Monday.
TRENTON, N.J. — A lopsided race for governor in New Jersey will be decided today when voters choose between Republican Gov. Chris Christie, who could leave before a second term ends to run for president, and Barbara Buono, a little-known state senator who was the only Democrat willing to challenge the popular incumbent.
Christie has been barnstorming the state by bus since Wednesday to drive up turnout. Polls leading up to Election Day showed him with a 20-plus point advantage as he pushes for a landslide to burnish his bipartisan credentials and show how well a reach-across-the-aisle Republican can do in a Democratic-leaning state. Christie is looking to become the first Republican running statewide to break 50 percent since George H.W. Bush in 1988.
By law, Christie cannot seek a third term, and he assured people after he voted today that it was the last time he’ll be running for elected office in New Jersey.
“I don’t know if I’ll ever have another chance to vote for myself,” he said. “I won’t ever run for another office in New Jersey, I can guarantee that. This is it for me.”
Buono campaigned without the aid of big-name Democrats. She also was spurned early on by Democratic leaders who control party politics in the state. They have a good working relationship with Christie and didn’t believe the progressive from Metuchen, on the fringes of the New York City metropolitan area, could win.
Buono and her husband voted early today at a school gymnasium in her hometown. She said she believed many Democrats would turn out for her, unlike four years ago when Christie defeated Gov. Jon Corzine. “They were unhappy with an incumbent governor, but couldn’t bring themselves to vote for Christie. That’s not going to happen,” she said.
Christie, 51, was already popular when Superstorm Sandy slammed into the coast a year ago, damaging 360,000 homes and businesses, plunging 5.5 million people into darkness and disrupting gasoline supplies for days. His popularity skyrocketed as he donned a blue fleece pullover and led the state through its worst natural disaster, whether he was embracing President Barack Obama during a visit to the battered coast or consoling a tearful 9-year-old who had lost her house.
Christie underwent weight-loss surgery in February and has been shedding pounds steadily since, addressing a health issue that could affect his political plans in the future. He was disqualified as a 2012 vice presidential candidate after refusing to answer questions about his health and other matters, according to a new book on last year’s presidential campaign.
Christie has refused to rule out a presidential run, which may mean he could resign before his second term ended.
Nearly half of New Jersey residents think he’ll run, according to a recent poll.
Buono, 60, has portrayed Christie’s ambitions as a negative. In an interview on MSNBC on Monday, she said the governor is putting his personal ambitions ahead of the needs of the state.
Buono has also challenged Christie on gay marriage, which she supported and he opposed before it became legal in New Jersey last month. She criticized Christie’s budget priorities — refusing to reinstate a surcharge on millionaires while trimming a property tax credit for the working poor, for example — and his veto of legislation raising the minimum-wage.
Though a majority of New Jersey residents agree with Buono on social issues, she has been unable to get out from a campaign Catch-22: She couldn’t get her message out because she hadn’t raised a lot of money for advertising, and she had trouble raising money because voters didn’t know her.
Democrats, including Buono, rejected Christie’s minimum-wage compromise of scaling back an increase and phasing it in over three years, and instead decided to put the question to voters.
So voters are being asked in ballot question No. 2 to increase the minimum wage by $1, to $8.25 per hour, and to allow annual cost-of-living increases based on inflation. They’ll also be asked to allow veterans’ groups to use proceeds from games of chance to run their organizations.
Voters will also choose their legislative representatives. Democrats now control both the Senate and Assembly with all 120 seats up for election.