Phil Murphy, Democratic nominee for governor of New Jersey, has a wide, toothy grin on his face. On the other side of the split screen is an “illegal alien” and “child rapist” in an orange jumpsuit who killed three students while out on bail.
“Make no mistake,” the ad’s narrator intones, “Murphy will have the backs of deranged murderers” by declaring New Jersey a sanctuary state.
Nothing like a racially charged attack ad to try to jolt what has been a relatively sleepy campaign to succeed Gov. Christie.
Nearly half of likely voters don’t even have an opinion of the main candidates: Murphy, 60, a former Goldman Sachs banker and ambassador to Germany, and Republican Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, 58, whose campaign launched the TV ad last week.
So as the campaign enters the homestretch, both candidates are hoping to spark enthusiasm among their parties’ most loyal voters. Murphy is stumping with popular Democrats like former Vice President Joe Biden, who panned the ad as “the return of Willie Horton” — a reference to George H.W. Bush’s infamous dog-whistling 1988 ad linking Democrat Michael Dukakis to a black murderer and rapist. Former President Barack Obama campaigned with Murphy on Thursday in Newark.
And because 75 percent of registered Republicans in New Jersey view President Trump favorably, Guadagno is gambling that her hard-line message on immigration will turn out a GOP base that has largely abandoned Christie. Her challenge is to do so without alienating the broader electorate in this Democratic-leaning state, which largely disapproves of the president.
It’s not clear that she’s comfortable treading that line. During an interview last week on Fox News, for example, Guadagno went back and forth using the words illegal and the more politically correct undocumented to describe certain immigrants.
The stakes are high for the Nov. 7 election. New Jersey’s pension system for public workers is the worst-funded in the country, according to Pew Charitable Trusts, and the state’s funding obligations for retirement benefits continue to climb. The next governor will confront years-long problems like high property taxes and a shortage of affordable housing, as well as relatively new ones like the opioid epidemic.
New Jersey and Virginia are the only two states that hold off-year gubernatorial elections, so the results there are often seen as a gauge of voter sentiment ahead of the following year’s midterm elections for Congress.
Murphy, who spent $20 million of his own money to help win June’s Democratic primary, has long framed the election as a referendum on Trump and the deeply unpopular Christie. Guadagno had sought to localize it, sticking to a pledge to lower property taxes, which polls show is a top issue for voters.
But that message hasn’t cut through: Just 12 percent of likely voters say they have heard about Guadagno’s property-tax plan, according to an Oct. 3 Monmouth University poll.
Now Guadagno, a former federal prosecutor and Monmouth County sheriff who is trailing in the polls by double digits and has struggled to raise money, is diving into a polarizing national issue.
Guadagno was incredulous about the backlash. “I somehow have become a racist?” she mused to a gun-rights group, explaining that she simply wants to protect people against violent crime.
“She needed to send up a flare and get some attention,” said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute.
The ad seized on Murphy’s comments during the first general-election debate Oct. 10 that he would make New Jersey a “sanctuary state” if Trump and Congress fail to protect immigrants who came to the U.S. illegally as minors.
It highlighted the 2007 slayings of three college-age friends on a Newark schoolyard. One of the men convicted in the killings was Jose Carranza, an immigrant from Peru who was in the U.S. illegally. He was out on bail at the time despite other pending charges, including sexual abuse of a child. Federal immigration authorities had not been told of his release.
Guadagno’s ad landed her an appearance on Trump’s favorite show, Fox & Friends, Murray noted, adding that “deep-pocketed conservatives” outside New Jersey may see her as a culture warrior and write checks her campaign badly needs.
Murphy had $5.4 million in his campaign account as of Oct. 6, more than five times as much as Guadagno’s $965,805, according to disclosures last week with state campaign-finance regulators.
Under the state’s public-financing program, which provides a $2 match for every dollar raised, the candidates can each spend up to $13.8 million.
Until now, Guadagno has rarely waded into controversial national political debates. She describes herself as pro-choice though personally opposed to abortion, and says she would reenter a regional cap-and-trade pact to combat climate change. Christie abandoned the accord in 2011, saying it imposed an energy tax on New Jerseyans.
With so few voters evidently paying attention — a result of New Jersey’s fractured media markets and the political whirlwind in Trump’s Washington — it may be too late for Guadagno to rebrand her candidacy.
To be sure, Guadagno is still driving home her message on taxes and spending. In a TV ad her campaign placed on Friday, a teacher asks a classroom of students to explain what would happen if “Murphy’s law” — every tax that can be raised, will be raised — goes into effect.
“Phil Murphy will be the only one who can afford to live in New Jersey,” the kids say in unison.
For his part, Murphy has responded to Guadagno’s “sanctuary” ad with no holds barred.
Appearing with Biden at a recent rally in Edison, Murphy said Christie and Guadagno “were Donald Trump before there was a Donald Trump.”
“It’s us vs. them, it’s vilifying, it’s balkanizing, it’s setting one community off against another,” he told a few hundred supporters, most of them members of labor unions.
The Murphy campaign saw value in telling supporters about the ad, using the opportunity to solicit donations.
Biden, denouncing Trump’s “gutter politics,” said people were supporting Murphy in part because “they want to raise the standard of dialogue” in politics.
Murphy, who raised $500,000 for Hillary Clinton last year, wants to increase the state minimum wage from $8.44 to $15, make community college tuition-free, and to legalize marijuana. He has also said he would consider establishing a single-payer health-care system.
The former Wall Street executive may be an unlikely avatar of Bernie Sanders-style politics, but he has made no effort to move to the political center since winning the primary.
“It’s less about whether he’s far liberal or moderately liberal; he just really is focusing on national issues and really is avoiding even discussing New Jersey-centric positions,” said Murray, the pollster.
During the first debate, Murphy dodged questions about a soon-to-expire cap on raises for police and firefighters and how he’d meet his goal of fully funding the pension fund for public workers.
But he was enthusiastic about challenging Trump and Christie, and his campaign hasn’t missed a beat since then. In a new TV ad, Murphy looks out toward the George Washington Bridge and reminds voters of the havoc Christie’s aides unleashed there in 2013.
“Their biggest triumph was a traffic jam,” Murphy says. “We are better than this.”
Some Murphy supporters don’t necessarily dislike Guadagno. Ron Nosiay, 69, a retired drywall taper and member of District Council 711 of the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades, called this a “very important race for labor because of the principles Mr. Murphy has.”
Asked about Guadagno while he was waiting inside the Sheraton Hotel here for Murphy and Biden, Nosiay went off on Christie.
“Unfortunately everybody has some baggage,” he said.