N.J. gov race: Ex-banker Murphy, Christie's No. 2 win primaries

Phil Murphy speaks to supporters during a Democratic primary election watch party at the Robert Treat Hotel, Tuesday, June 6, 2017, at in Newark, N.J.

NEWARK — The winners of Tuesday’s gubernatorial primaries in New Jersey offered different visions for the state, but they agree on at least one thing: Gov. Christie’s brash style needs to go.

Primary voters elected former Wall Street banker Phil Murphy, a Democrat, and Republican Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, both of whom are calling for a more inclusive approach to governing.

Both candidates had establishment support and were the front-runners for the nominations. But Murphy enters the general-election campaign as the heavy favorite: Christie’s historically low approval ratings are expected to drag down the GOP nominee, and registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans by about 840,000 voters. To be sure, a plurality of voters is unaffiliated with either party.

Murphy has framed his candidacy as a rejection of “special interests,” even though he spent more than $20 million and won with the backing of nearly every Democratic power broker and interest group. Similarly, Guadagno has railed against “Trenton insiders,” even though she has worked in the state capital for 7½ years as Christie’s second-in-command.

Speaking to hundreds of supporters at a hotel here in Newark, Murphy, 59, of Middletown, Monmouth County, said, “Four more years of Christie-style politics won’t make New Jersey the state where we draw the line against Donald Trump, but we will.”

Phil Murphy speaks to supporters during a Democratic primary election watch party at the Robert Treat Hotel, Tuesday, June 6, 2017, at in Newark, N.J. (JULIO CORTEZ / AP)

“New Jersey cannot afford a governor who has been complicit in the failures that have left New Jersey lagging where we should be leading,” Murphy said as he stood alongside his wife, Tammy, and their four children.

Murphy, who has never held elective office, led with 48 percent of the vote as of 10 p.m., with 70 percent of precincts reporting. He defeated five other candidates, including former U.S. Treasury Undersecretary Jim Johnson, Assemblyman John S. Wisniewski, and State Sen. Raymond J. Lesniak.

Guadagno, 58, of Monmouth Beach, Monmouth County, told supporters in a Long Branch banquet room that “this campaign, our campaign, is about making New Jersey affordable for everyone.” She defeated four rivals; her main challenger was Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli, 55, of Hillsborough, Somerset County, whom she thanked for his “faithful service” to the GOP and state.

“I’m running for governor based on my values. Based on my record. And based on my principles,” Guadagno said to applause, appearing to distinguish herself from Christie.

New Jersey Republican Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno is followed by her son, Michael, as she takes the stage at her primary election night even, in Long Branch, N.J. (MEL EVANS / AP)

While Guadagno has sought to distance herself from Christie, Murphy also faces unwelcome comparison to an unpopular governor: Jon Corzine, Christie’s Democratic predecessor, who was CEO of Goldman Sachs for part of the time Murphy worked there.

“The only difference between Phil Murphy and Jon Corzine is Phil Murphy doesn’t have a beard,” Christie said recently, as he accused Murphy of buying the Democratic nomination. Murphy says he will participate in the state’s public-financing system in the general election, which will limit his spending to $13.8 million.

Guadagno told supporters Tuesday that “if we elect Phil Murphy governor of the state of New Jersey, then the only person who will be able to afford to live in the state of New Jersey will be Phil Murphy.”

Voter turnout was expected to be low: It had not exceeded 14 percent in the state’s gubernatorial primaries since 1997.

Murphy says he would spur innovation by investing in STEM fields and clean energy, and restore trust in state government by fully funding obligations such as pensions and schools. He wants to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour from the current $8.44 and says he would raises taxes on millionaires, close corporate loopholes, and stop investing state pension money with hedge-fund managers.

Guadagno, a former Monmouth County sheriff and federal prosecutor, has focused on affordability, promising to find $1.5 billion to pay for property tax relief and to negotiate with unions to address the state’s public worker pension crisis.

She defended her record in Christie’s administration as successful in growing jobs and attracting businesses to the state, while Ciattarelli argued for a new direction — tying Guadagno to the 11 downgrades of the state’s credit rating and other fiscal challenges during Christie’s tenure.

While Christie had stayed neutral in the GOP primary, he said Tuesday that he voted for Guadagno.

The more important race was one that had been underway for some three years.

Not long after Christie’s reelection in 2013, the shadow campaign to succeed him began in earnest among three high-profile Democrats: Senate President Stephen Sweeney of Gloucester County, Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop, and Murphy.

Although Murphy had virtually unlimited financial resources, he didn’t have a natural political power base. Sweeney had a lock on South Jersey and needed to make inroads in the northern part of the state, which is home to a greater share of the statewide Democratic primary electorate.

Fulop, as mayor of New Jersey’s second largest city, sought to unify northern support to counter Sweeney and his political benefactor, George E. Norcross III, the hospital and insurance executive.

Murphy began unofficially testing the waters by founding nonprofits and hiring veteran consultants who would eventually work for his campaign. He took the highly unusual step of announcing his candidacy a full year before the primary and immediately loaned his campaign $10 million.

While political insiders believed the primary was up for grabs, that changed in September, when Fulop announced that he would not run for governor and was instead endorsing Murphy. By that time, Murphy had laid the groundwork to win over Fulop’s supporters and force Sweeney out of the race, too.

His checkbook was also helpful. Murphy and his wife, Tammy, have donated at least $799,100 to New Jersey Democratic campaigns and committees since 2014, an Inquirer review of campaign-finance filings shows.

Murphy was the Democratic National Committee’s finance chairman from 2006 to 2009, after which he became President Barack Obama’s ambassador to Germany.

“Murphy had done a lot of groundwork in meeting and greeting Democratic Party leaders across the state, no matter who they supported, so that when the dominoes started to fall, he was in prime position to sweep in and collect all the support,” said Patrick Murray, a political analyst at Monmouth University.

Murphy won the support of all 21 county Democratic organizations, meaning he had the full backing of the party machine.

His official opponents — Johnson, Wisniewski, and Lesniak — didn’t even compete for the county “lines,” saying the process was rigged in Murphy’s favor. They attacked his ties to Goldman Sachs, which is reviled by many on the left as a symbol of Wall Street greed; questioned his investments in energy companies; and contended that he, like Corzine before him, was trying to buy the election by donating a small fortune to county political parties and turning the campaign into a “bidding war.”

But the underdogs had difficulty delivering their message in the expensive New York and Philadelphia media markets. And the reliable New Jersey political machine turned out the vote for Murphy.