N.J. governor's race: 'A referendum on Trump and Christie'

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Then-Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump (left) and Gov. Chris Christie at the Republican National Convention.

Few voters know the candidates running for New Jersey governor this year.

But they are well acquainted with Gov. Christie and President Trump — Republicans whose collective unpopularity has New Jersey Democrats beaming as they seek to return the Garden State to one-party rule.

The party’s liberal base is eager to join other Democratic states fighting on the front lines against Trump. To many Democrats, the federal lawsuit filed by Washington state that successfully blocked Trump’s controversial travel ban underscored the stakes of the 2017 election. With a GOP-controlled Congress and White House, Democrats believe states could play an instrumental role in holding Trump in check. 

Because New Jersey and Virginia are the only states holding statewide elections this year, they are guinea pigs in Democrats’ efforts to win in the Trump era and claw back power that eroded across the country during Barack Obama’s presidency. 

“The election is a referendum on Trump and Christie,” said Bob Shrum, a former Democratic consultant who advised the presidential campaigns of Al Gore and John Kerry. “Trump is not popular in the state; Christie is poisonous in the state. It’s hard to see how any Republican could navigate these waters.” 

Democratic wins in New Jersey and Virginia would “be a straw in the wind,” Shrum said, “which if I were working” at the National Republican Senatorial Committee or Republican Governors Association, “I would be worried in 2018, despite numbers in their favor.” 

Even though Trump isn’t on the ballot, Democrats would be “insane not to make him part of the campaign, just like we made Obama part of the campaign each time,” said New Jersey Assemblyman Michael Patrick Carroll (R., Morris).

It’s no surprise, then, that Democrats running in the June primary are moving to prove their progressive, anti-Trump bona fides. 

In a recent fund-raising email, Phil Murphy, the Democratic front-runner, highlighted an endorsement from Levi Sanders, son of former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders: “We need someone to stand up to bullies like Donald Trump and Chris Christie.” 

Murphy, a former executive with the Wall Street firm Goldman Sachs and ambassador to Germany, has been endorsed by nearly every major Democratic constituency: party bosses, labor unions, environmental groups. He all but secured the nomination when his chief rivals, Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop and Senate President Stephen Sweeney of Gloucester County, announced last fall that they wouldn’t run and endorsed Murphy. 

Anti-Trump rhetoric has trickled down to the Democratic-controlled Legislature, where all 120 seats are also up for election in November. 

In recent weeks, Democrats have passed resolutions condemning Trump’s executive order on immigration; tried to override Christie’s veto of legislation that sought to temporarily bar Carl Icahn, a friend of Trump’s and former owner of the Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City, from owning casinos in the state; and pushed a bill that would require the state to pick up the tab if Trump cuts off funding for so-called sanctuary cities

The legislative activity is at least in part designed to appeal to the party’s liberal base and, in some cases, force Republican lawmakers who represent moderate districts to cast tough votes on Trump-related issues. 

In response, Republicans have used procedural maneuvers to force votes on some of their priorities, such as a bill that would prohibit public officials who have been convicted of crimes related to their office from collecting pensions.   

There may be limits to playing the Trump card, however. In the general election, political observers said, voters will expect the campaign to return to New Jersey issues. While Democrats could have difficulty tying the Republican nominee to the unconventional president, it would be far easier to warn voters against a third Christie term. 

The governor’s approval ratings are below 20 percent, recent polls show. One of the leading GOP candidates is Christie’s No. 2, Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno.

Ironically, Murphy is just the kind of a “globalist” or “elite” candidate Trump campaigned against in 2016. 

Murphy, who is close to Bill and Hillary Clinton, is a Harvard-educated diplomat who spent two decades at Goldman Sachs – where former Democratic Gov. Jon S. Corzine was once CEO. Murphy, of Middletown, Monmouth County, has donated some $250,000 to the state Democratic Party apparatus since 2015, according to the Associated Press, leaving him vulnerable to accusations that, like Corzine in 2005, Murphy bought party support.

Murphy has loaned $10 million to his campaign.

Other Democratic candidates, such as Assemblyman John S. Wisniewski of Middlesex County, are trying to campaign as outsiders against a boss-driven political system they deride as corrupt. 

Wisniewski, a former state party chairman who has served in the Legislature for 20 years and led the legislative investigation into the 2013 George Washington Bridge lane-closure scandal, rails against “backroom deals” and “rigged conventions” he says have unfairly benefited Murphy.

Murphy’s supporters roll their eyes at such suggestions. “This is a fair and open process,” said State Sen. Joe Vitale, a Democrat who represents the same district as Wisniewski.

The party doesn’t seem to be concerned about its early embrace of Murphy. “I have not heard one Democrat express one iota of buyer’s remorse. Not one,” said Nick Acocella, author of the popular newsletter Politifax. “Other than the people who are running against him and those who support them, nobody seems to have any problems with a very wealthy self-funder.” 

“That speaks well for his retail political abilities,” Acocella added. “He’s much better at this than anybody imagined.” 

Brigid Harrison, a professor of political science and law at Montclair State University, said Democratic leaders might not have fully considered Murphy’s vulnerabilities, given that the party’s main alternatives dropped out when Hillary Clinton was expected to win the White House.   

Of course, New Jersey voted for Clinton in both the primary and general elections. Even as the national party searches for a new kind of leader following Clinton’s defeat, Harrison said, “I don’t know that New Jerseyans necessarily want that right now.” 

Perhaps the more interesting question is whether Republicans embrace a traditional candidate with political experience like Guadagno – or, to escape Christie’s shadow, a true outsider. 

In that vein, some Republicans are hoping that Joe Piscopo, a radio-show host and former Saturday Night Live star, enters the race.     

Regardless of the nominee, some Republicans aren’t so sanguine on their chances. Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans in the state by about 860,000, though a plurality of voters is unaffiliated with either party. 

Carroll, the Republican lawmaker, argued that Christie defeated Corzine in 2009 in a personality contest that lacked substance. 

“And people didn’t like Jon Corzine,” Carroll said. “People have no reason to dislike Phil Murphy. So what are they going to do? They’re going to return to their normal ancestral homes, I would imagine.”