The decision by New Jersey Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-West Deptford) to not run for governor has likely set the stage for state Sen. Barbara Buono (D-Metuchen) to challenge Gov. Chris Christie (R) in November.
Sweeney declined to jump into the Democratic primary against his longtime foe Buono, PolitickerNJ.com reported, in order to focus on state Senate races in 2013. Sweeney's decision comes after south Jersey Democratic leader George Norcross, who is aligned with Sweeney, publicly backed Buono, dealing a major blow to the Senate president's nascent candidacy.
News of Sweeney's withdrawal comes as a series of powerful Democratic leaders in north New Jersey have endorsed Buono, providing her with the support needed to fend off a primary challenger. Buono was endorsed on Monday morning by Rep. Bill Pascrell (D), who has also been mentioned as a potential gubernatorial candidate, along with the Democratic Party chairmen in Bergen, Hudson and Passaic Counties. The three counties are among the most powerful in New Jersey Democratic politics, and backing from those provide Buono, combined with the support likely to come from Norcross allies in south Jersey, with the organizational clout to win a contested primary.
"She has been a true fighter in the battle for Hudson County’s middle-class taxpayers, and the Hudson County Democratic Organization proudly endorses her for governor," Hudson County Democratic Party Chairman Mark Smith said in a statement. Additionally, Rep. Frank Pallone officially endorsed Buono in a statement sent out by her campaign Monday afternoon.
Monday's developments will likely end what has been a frantic search by Democratic Party leaders in recent weeks to find an alternative to Buono, who became the first Democratic challenger to Christie when she announced her candidacy in December. Democrats have feared that Buono, who has trailed Christie in polls and fundraising, could hurt state legislative candidates, a move that Buono and her supporters have refuted.
Buono, a former Senate majority leader, is likely to be the only woman gubernatorial candidate in the country this year. She would be the first Democratic woman to be nominated for governor and only the second woman to have been nominated for governor by a major party in New Jersey history. Former Gov. Christine Todd Whitman (R) and Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno (R) are the only women to have been elected to statewide office in New Jersey.
The emerging unity around Buono comes after a series of prominent Democrats declined to run against Christie, who has been enjoying high approval ratings following Hurricane Sandy. Newark Mayor Cory Booker (D) declined to run last month to focus on a potential U.S. Senate bid in 2014. Others who took passes on the race included Pascrell, state Sen. Richard Codey (D-Roseland) and Essex County Freeholder Brendan Gill (D-Montclair). Gill will be hosting an upcoming Buono fundraiser. Elizabeth Mayor Chris Bollwage has told HuffPost he will run if party bosses will back him.