TRENTON, N.J. — State Sen. Barbara Buono is struggling to raise money for her campaign to be governor of New Jersey, but thanks to a liberal group that does not have to disclose its donors, there's no shortage of attack commercials against the incumbent, Chris Christie.
One New Jersey's commercials seem aimed as much as damaging Christie's prospects as a presidential candidate in 2016 as at unseating the Republican in Trenton this year, political analysts say.
The group, run by consultants who have worked for Democratic candidates and liberal and labor organizations, has been on the air since April with ads criticizing Christie for vetoing a bill that would have increased the minimum wage and for opposing the restoration of a higher tax rate for high earners. The group has outspent Buono's own campaign, which is funded largely by public money through a matching program.
"I'm not going to comment on the effectiveness of outside ads," said David Turner, Buono's campaign spokesman, who noted that campaigns and the outside groups are not supposed to coordinate activities or strategies. "But certainly Gov. Christie's record should be talked about."
One New Jersey has spent more than $2.8 million for radio, television and online ads, spokesman Joshua Henne said.
By comparison, Buono's campaign has brought in about $2.6 million in donations and public matching funds, according to documents filed with the state election officials. While ads are the campaign's biggest expense, she also has to pay staffers, cater fundraising events, pay phone bills and rent office space, expenses the outside groups don't necessarily have.
Unless she has a major burst of fundraising soon, Buono will fall well short of qualifying for the maximum matching money — which would give a candidate $5.6 million total — for the June 4 primary, where she has token opposition. Christie, who also has token opposition in the primary and is not accepting matching funds, had raised $6.5 million by May 24. He has raised so much money that he was able to produce a Spanish-language TV commercial before Buono had any ads on the air in English.
Christie said in May after his campaign started airing his first negative campaign ad about Buono that he needed to respond to the message from the independent group.
While One New Jersey is the most active at the moment, it's not the only nonprofit "social welfare" organization relying on anonymous donors in New Jersey.
The Committee for Our Children's Future, whose officers are friends of Christie's, told The Star-Ledger last year that it had spent $7.8 million in pro-Christie ads in 2011 and 2012. The site is now down, and Brian Jones, who had been a spokesman for the group, did not return a call.
The groups are a relatively new wrinkle in political spending. They're nonprofits, but not tax-exempt. They're allowed to engage in politics — but not to coordinate with campaigns — though their main mission is supposed to be education. This is the classification that tea party and other conservative groups were applying for when they received scrutiny from the Internal Revenue Service.
They are also not required to file expenditure reports with election regulators. TV and radio stations and cable companies that run their ads must keep public records of the buys, but those are difficult to gather because of the number of outlets.
Spending by other outside groups, such as political action committees, is nothing new in New Jersey campaigns.
Both major parties' governors groups are normally active during campaign seasons here, usually with negative ads. Lobbyists have also spent big in New Jersey. In 2011, the lobbying arm of the New Jersey Education Association spent $11 million bashing Christie and his policies.
It's the anonymity that sets the new groups apart.
While there's speculation about who's funding the campaigns, there isn't a paper trail to prove it, and may never be.
Some traditional Democratic donors could be giving to One New Jersey instead of to Buono's campaign, said Patrick Murray, a political scientist at Monmouth University.
"There are people who don't want Chris Christie re-elected but don't want him to know that," Murray said. "They don't want to be on the naughty list in November."
With Christie far ahead in polls, analysts say the ads are not just about trying to defeat him this year.
"It's a way of Christie's political enemies to put a ding in his armor moving forward to 2016," said Brigid Harrison, a Montclair State University political scientist.
She also said the intent is also to remind voters in the Democratic-leaning state of principles they've traditionally cared about even as the Democrat-controlled Legislature has helped advance Christie's agenda on some fronts.
Kevin Roberts, a campaign spokesman for Christie, says Buono is hiding behind the One New Jersey ads because voters don't like her record of trying to raise taxes. "That's her record, which is why she isn't talking about it and why she isn't gaining traction," he said.
Henne, a political consultant who works for Democrats and unions who has worked for Buono, said One New Jersey is complying with laws and trying to tell New Jersey voters about Christie. In one commercial, the group tries to differentiate between the Christie who charms talk show audiences and the one who has Republican policy views.
"They deserve to know when regressive policies and wrong-headed decisions are made that are out of step with New Jersey values," Henne said in an email. "And they deserve to know what's holding them back, causing our state to fall further behind."
In the past, Buono was a sponsor of a bill that would have required groups like One New Jersey and Committee for Our Children's Future to disclose their donors.
While Turner says she still supports the concept, she's no longer sponsoring the bill.
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