N.J. donors buck national GOP group with Democrat favored to succeed Christie

New Jersey Republican Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno is followed by her son, Michael, as she takes the stage at her primary election night event.

In 2013, when Gov. Christie was a national GOP star heavily favored to win reelection, a municipal underwriting firm called NW Financial Group donated $10,000 to the Republican Governors Association.

This year, the Hoboken-based firm, which has contracts totaling $2.6 million with dozens of towns, school boards, and other public entities across New Jersey, hasn’t given a dime to the GOP group. But one of its founding members and partners did contribute $6,000 to the Democratic Governors Association.

NW Financial isn’t alone among New Jersey donors in dropping support for the RGA. Christie, now deeply unpopular, has reached his term limit and will leave office in January. And as Republican Kim Guadagno and Democrat Phil Murphy campaign to replace him, outside groups are cutting checks to try to influence the election.

But just as contributions flowed to the RGA in 2013 when Christie was considered unbeatable and a prospective presidential candidate, donations from the Garden State are filling the coffers of the DGA — now that a Democrat is expected to take the governor’s mansion.

New Jersey’s campaign-finance and pay-to-play laws sharply restrict how much money individuals and companies can donate to gubernatorial candidates. But those same people and companies can effectively skirt the rules by routing money to national groups such as the RGA and its Democratic counterpart, which can in turn use those donations to influence state elections.

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Democratic gubernatorial candidate Phil Murphy during a news conference in Newark. SETH WENIG / AP

But in a potentially bad sign for Guadagno, only 15 people and companies donated to the RGA in the first six months of 2017, down from 48 donors in 2013, according to a review of the group’s filings with the Internal Revenue Service.

In 2013, New Jersey individuals, political action committees, and companies, many of them public contractors, donated $1.8 million to the RGA through June 30 of that year.

That’s $1 million more than New Jersey donors had contributed to the RGA through the first six months of this year, the period for which the most recent data are available.

Conversely, the DGA has raised about $1 million more from New Jersey donors than it had over the same period in 2013, when Democratic gubernatorial nominee Barbara Buono was all but abandoned by her party.

Murphy is scheduled to hold a fund-raiser for the DGA later this month in Cherry Hill with Democratic power broker George E. Norcross III, the South Jersey hospital and insurance executive, and Norcross’ brothers Philip and Donald, a congressman.

Guadagno, who is Christie’s second-in-command as New Jersey’s lieutenant governor, was already facing long odds. Christie’s approval rating has hovered around 15 percent for months, polls show, making him the least popular governor in New Jersey history.

Camera icon AP Photo/Julio Cortez
Gov. Christie’s low approval rating presents a challenge for his No. 2, Kim Guadagno, who wants to succeed him. JULIO CORTEZ / AP

President Trump presents another conundrum: Sixty-one percent of New Jersey’s registered voters have an unfavorable opinion of the president, but 75 percent of Republicans view him favorably, according to an Aug. 31 Rutgers-Eagleton poll.

“That should be Guadagno’s base, as well,” said Ashley Koning, director of the Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling. Guadagno will need to turn out those voters in November without alienating the broader electorate, Koning said.

Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by about 870,000 voters, though the largest share of voters is unaffiliated.

Murphy, a longtime former Goldman Sachs banker who was President Barack Obama’s ambassador to Germany, led Guadagno by 27 percentage points in a July 12 Monmouth University poll of registered voters. However, the candidates are largely unknown to voters, the poll found.

What’s more, Murphy, who spent $20 million of his own money to help win the Democratic primary in June, opted to participate in the state’s public-financing program for the general election. Under that system, Murphy and Guadagno are limited to spending $13.8 million each. As of August, Murphy had raised about $5 million to Guadagno’s $1.5 million.

All of which makes spending by outside groups potentially even more important in the Nov. 7 election.

The only other state holding an election for governor this year is Virginia, where the race is considered tighter. That could pull national resources from New Jersey.

Jon Thompson, a spokesman for the RGA, declined to comment on the group’s future political spending, saying he didn’t want to disclose strategy. But, noting that Murphy has pledged to raise taxes by $1.3 billion, Thompson said that “voters are quickly learning that they can’t afford Murphy as governor.”

He said it wasn’t fair to interpret the drop in donations as a lack of enthusiasm for Guadagno’s campaign, “especially when a few of Phil Murphy’s Goldman Sachs buddies can write a big-money check at any time.”

A spokesman for Guadagno said the campaign had the “full support of the RGA,” and added that the Republican National Committee was already “on the ground” to warn voters about Murphy.

Derek Roseman, a spokesman for Murphy, said Guadagno would “simply give us another four years of the same disastrous policies that have mired our economy in the mud and ruined our finances across the past eight.”

Some public contractors and other groups that gave to the RGA in 2013 have shifted their allegiance.

McManimon, Scotland & Baumann LLC, a public-finance law firm that has contracts with boards of education, municipalities, and independent authorities across the state totaling $11.2 million, contributed $10,000 to the RGA in 2013. It hadn’t donated to the group as of June 30, though it did give $26,000 to the DGA.

The firm didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Other groups that indirectly helped Christie in 2013 are now simply sitting on the sidelines.

The law firm formerly known as O’Toole Fernandez Weiner Van Lieu LLC, where Kevin O’Toole, a Republican former state senator, is managing partner, donated $100,000 to the RGA in 2013. The firm — which rebranded this year after Christie’s chief counsel, Thomas P. Scrivo, left the administration to become a managing partner — hasn’t donated to the RGA this year, or to the DGA. The firm has contracts with towns and a college totaling about $340,000.

During a state Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in June, O’Toole, who is now chairman of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, grew irate during a parole board confirmation hearing.

The nominee for parole board had been entangled in a flap over the state GOP chairmanship. Upset with how Guadagno had handled the situation, O’Toole fumed: “It is a disgrace. And I want an answer. … I want an answer from the lieutenant governor.”

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