The political world has suffered whiplash watching Chris Christie go from anointed Republican presidential frontrunner to a man in existential career crisis in just about two months. The New Jersey governor garnered the cover of TIME and a flood of speculation about how formidable he would be in 2016 after winning a smashing reelection in November. Now the George Washington Bridge scandal and its spin-off controversies threaten to end not just his White House hopes but his place at the top of the Republican hierarchy nationally and in the Garden State.
Christie’s overmatched Democratic opponent in his 2013 reelection campaign, Barbara Buono, is telling anyone who will listen now that she clearly saw the very traits in Christie that have laid him low now. At the top of Buono’s list was the notion that Christie is a “bully” who lacks the temperament to be an effective leader. The Democrat made that case on the stump, citing both the famous YouTube videos of Christie berating various constituents and the book I wrote with John Heilemann, Double Down, which features scenes of Christie acting ever-so tough. But, as with the rest of Buono’s message, she lacked a megaphone big enough to burn the argument in with the voters.
TIME has obtained a television ad produced by the Buono campaign but never aired that accuses Christie of being a bully. “Some say this bully can’t be beaten. I’m Barbara Buono and I say that’s up to you,” the candidate says. See the ad below.
Part of the reason Democrats barely laid a glove on Christie last year is that Buono didn’t have enough money to buy TV time in the expensive Philadelphia and New York media markets. But the “bully” theme didn’t have much resonance before the bridge controversy, so it isn’t clear how much the commercial would have hurt the incumbent even if it had aired. Many voters seemed to like Christie’s tough-talking ways back then.
The spot was produced by John Del Cecato, an admaker who worked in both of President Barack Obama’s White House runs and also made 2013’s most famous campaign ad—a commercial for New York Mayor Bill de Blasio featuring his son Dante that was widely credited with helping de Blasio win the city’s Democratic primary.
As the investigations into Christie and his team continue, the facts of what was done by whom, when, and why will matter most. But there is no doubt that Democrats will continue to tout the notion of Christie as a bully to dovetail with the underlying facts of the latest scandal. This unaired Buono ad reflects the Democrats’ 2013 failure—and their 2014 hopes.