Today was a good day for New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R).
Newark Mayor Cory Booker's (D) decision not to challenge the popular Republican governor next year removed the highest-profile name from the list of prospective Christie opponents. Now, Democrats will have to look elsewhere for a candidate up to the task of running against him.
And who the eventual nominee will be is an open question.
The names being bandied about include state Sen. Barbara Buono (the only Democrat who is officially running), state Sen. and former governor Richard Codey, state Assembly Majority Leader Lou Greenwald, state Senate president Stephen Sweeney, and Rep. Frank Pallone. Most trailed Christie by wide margins and performed less favorably that Booker in recent polling.
One Democratic strategist with an eye on the New Jersey race said that Sweeney (who won't make a decision before the end of the year) looks like the strongest candidate. Codey has polled a bit better against Christie than other Democrats. Buono could benefit if she ends up as the only woman in the Democratic field.
In other words, several potential candidates could make a compelling case for nomination.
But none of them are likely capable of matching Booker's fundraising ability, nor do any of them boast the built-in name identification the Newark mayor enjoys. Booker's national profile would have brought him campaign donations from far and wide and high-profile support from national Democratic figures.
Whether that would have been enough to defeat Christie in a race where local issues matter is a question that will remain forever hypothetical. Booker's record as Newark mayor would have come under increased scrutiny (see this recent New York Times story for more on the issues that have plagued Newark under Booker's watch) and at this point, polls show that even he trails the governor by double-digits.
But money and name ID matter in the populous Garden State where the ability to advertise in the pricey New York City media market is a prerequisite for any serious statewide candidate. Booker would have been the Democrat best positioned to match Christie, dollar for dollar.
That said, don't expect Democrats to throw in the towel against Christie. Over the past few weeks, it began to look more and more like Booker would pass on a bid. So his decision isn't a big surprise.
Nor is this the end of the world for party strategists. New Jersey is a Democratic state, and for that reason alone, Christie is no sure thing no matter how good his numbers look. And the Republican's current popularity comes in the wake of his handling of Hurricane Sandy. It would be difficult to imagine Christie maintaining such sky-high numbers for another 11 months, especially in the face of Democratic attacks.
Democrats are expected to put up a fight against Christie, and the New Jersey race remains a potential pickup opportunity. It's just the that fight looks a great deal more difficult without Booker in the picture.