New Jersey’s Forgotten Governor’s Race

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Democrat Phil Murphy and Republican Kim Guadagno heavily favored to win gubernatorial primaries overshadowed by incumbent Chris Christie and the candidates who didn’t run. Photo: US Department of State; New Jersey Governor's Office

With all the coverage of special congressional elections this year, it’s a bit amazing to realize how little national attention has been paid to two important governor’s elections happening in 2017 — in New Jersey and Virginia. Of the two, the Old Dominion race featuring a highly competitive Democratic primary between Tom Perriello and Ralph Northam has gotten ten times the national ink and pixels as the truly ignored contest in the Garden State, which holds its primaries on Tuesday.

Part of the problem in New Jersey is that the cast of characters who passed up the race is more interesting than the candidates actually running. On the Democratic side, there was talk about Senator Cory Booker coming home to run for governor. Former three-time Acting Governor Richard Codey was mentioned some, as were former Congressman Rush Holt, Jersey City mayor Steven Fulop, and state Senate president Stephen Sweeney. On the GOP side former Saturday Night Live comedian turned radio talk show host Joe Piscopo gave serious consideration to the race, and the GOP leaders in both branches of the state legislature had their names bruited about.

It’s also safe to say that incumbent Governor Chris Christie, who is term-limited and would be trounced if he could and did run for reelection, is casting a long shadow on the contest to elect his successor. His long-time heir apparent, Kim Guadagno, does not even mention her eight years of service as lieutenant governor in the Christie administration in her ads.

She is, nonetheless, the GOP front-runner thanks, if nothing else, to name ID and a comfortable financial advantage (spending about $2 million) over her chief rival, state legislator Jack Ciattarelli, who has been trying to appeal to Republicans tired of Christie. Guadagno has pounded Ciattarelli with ads attacking his plan for dealing with New Jersey’s notoriously high property taxes as requiring an income tax, dubbing him “High Tax Jack.” For a party already in a deep hole in New Jersey, the GOP is struggling to stay unified.

The most recent poll of New Jersey Republicans, from Stockton University, shows Guadagno leading Ciattarelli 37 points to 18, with no other candidate in double digits. A once enormous undecided vote is finally drifting down to around one-third of voters. Anything other than a Guadagno win would be a big upset.

An upset is probably even less likely on the Democratic side, where former Goldman Sachs president and ambassador to Germany Phil Murphy has sucked most of the oxygen out of the race by spending around $20 million — more than five times what the rest of the field combined has spent — mostly from a large personal loan to his campaign. Like his predecessor at Goldman Sachs, former Democratic Governor Jon Corzine, Murphy has spent a big portion of his bankroll on supporting other candidates and party organizations around the state, unsurprisingly harvesting a lot of endorsements. Murphy’s most recent prominent endorsement, however, from former Vice-President Joe Biden, mostly reflected his service in the Obama administration.

Murphy’s two most viable opponents have both unsurprisingly gone after him for trying to buy the Democratic nomination. Murphy refused to accept the public matching funds New Jersey makes available in exchange for a spending limitation. Former Treasury undersecretary and head of the election-reform powerhouse the Brennan Center for Justice, Jim Johnson, managed to qualify for matching funds and has spent a lot of time quoting Bernie Sanders’s attacks on Goldman Sachs. So too has a less successful fundraiser, state legislator John Wisniewski, who ran Sanders’s New Jersey campaign last year and was also the chief attack-dog in the Bridgegate scandal that laid Christie low. It doesn’t help their cause that Murphy retired from Goldman way back in 2003, long before the firm because synonymous with the ruined dreams of many millions.

The May 23 poll from Stockton showed Murphy leading Johnson 34 to 10, with Wisniewski at 9 percent. A third of voters are still undecided.

Assuming Murphy and Guadagno advance to the general election, the Democrat will begin as a solid favorite thanks to Christie’s — and Donald Trump’s — problems in this state. (Trump lost New Jersey by a 41/56 margin last year, despite, or perhaps because, of his proximity to the Garden State over the years.) Murphy is confident enough that he’s agreed to accept public matching funds and contribution limits in the general election, which will mean he can’t spend more than $13.8 million. That’s not a huge amount of money in a place where candidates must buy ads in the ultra-expensive New York and Philadelphia media markets. But having come this far against not only a sizable field but against the shades of all those might-have-run candidates, perhaps Murphy figures he’s coasting downhill toward Trenton.

New Jersey’s Forgotten Governor’s Race