N.J. Dems lurch to the left in governor's race. Is there room for a centrist?

New Jersey Governors Race
Candidates, from left, Assemblyman John Wisniewski, Phil Murphy, Jim Johnson and Sen. Ray Lesniak attend a Democratic gubernatorial primary debate in Newark, N.J.

Phil Murphy, the Democratic front-runner in the New Jersey governor’s race, was boasting of Bernie Sanders’ support for a wonky idea like his to create a public bank when he turned to President Trump’s “un-American” budget and health-care proposal.

“By the way, people say, ‘Would you consider single-payer health care?’ ” he told the Inquirer editorial board last week, unprompted. He raised his hand and said: “Yes! We just figure out: Where are we going to get that?”

As the national party searches for clues of how to win in the Trump presidency, especially in the 2018 midterm congressional elections, Democrats are debating whether they should court disaffected working-class voters who propelled Trump to the White House or embrace a more traditional liberal posture popular with the party’s base — or some combination thereof.

This year’s gubernatorial races in New Jersey and Virginia may well offer a road map, starting next week with the Garden State’s June 6 primaries.

And at least in New Jersey, Democrats appear confident that pushing an unapologetic liberal agenda is the way to win, as each candidate for governor wants to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour, legalize marijuana, slow charter-school expansion, and at least consider single-payer, government-funded health care for all nine million residents.

The campaign, in both parties, is in many ways a repudiation of Gov. Christie, who is politically toxic given his 20 percent approval rating.

The Democratic primary is also a renunciation of the so-called Christie-crats — an epithet for centrist Democrats who have worked with the Republican governor on issues such as changing the retirement system for public workers.

The lurch to the left, perhaps unsurprising for what is expected to be a low-turnout primary election, raises the question of whether there’s room for a more moderate Democrat in a statewide campaign.

“I think a Democrat will be governor, because Christie is like Ebola, and Trump isn’t much better in New Jersey,” said Matt Bennett, a former aide to President Bill Clinton and cofounder of Third Way, a center-left think tank based in Washington. “One thing to keep in mind about New Jersey: Governors of both parties who drift too far away from the center become unpopular pretty quickly.”

President Trump and Gov. Christie at the Trump National Golf Club Bedminster clubhouse in Bedminster, N.J. Their unpopularity in New Jersey is expected to help Democrats retake the governor’s mansion. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)

Across the country, Bennett said, Democrats considering running for office have a tendency to “over-read the action in the streets and online as reflective of the broader electorate. Our concern is that it isn’t.”

Murphy, a former executive at the Wall Street investment firm Goldman Sachs and ambassador to Germany, is the favorite in a Democratic field that includes former U.S. Treasury Undersecretary Jim Johnson, Assemblyman John S. Wisniewski, and State Sen. Raymond J. Lesniak. The leading Republican contenders are Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno and Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli.

As of May 10, Murphy had spent about $18 million and lent his campaign $15 million, according to campaign-finance records. Murphy leads the field with support of 34 percent of Democratic primary voters, triple his closest challenger, according to a Stockton University poll released May 25.

Not too long ago, most political insiders expected a highly competitive race among three front-runners: Murphy, the self-funded diplomat of Monmouth County who raises inevitable comparisons to Jon S. Corzine, the former Goldman CEO and New Jersey governor; Steve Fulop, a youthful Iraq War veteran and mayor overseeing a booming Jersey City; and Senate President Stephen Sweeney of Gloucester County, an ironworker by trade who says he once came within a 16th of an inch of losing his eye on the job.

“Super PACs” had raised millions of dollars in anticipation of Fulop’s and Sweeney’s candidacies.

Fulop shocked the New Jersey political world when he announced in September he would not run for governor and was instead endorsing Murphy. Sweeney quickly followed, determining he couldn’t win enough support from political power brokers in North Jersey, which is rich with Democratic primary voters, in a head-to-head race with Murphy.

Sweeney, it’s worth noting, made his name breaking with public-sector unions to try to fix the state’s underfunded pension system. Now, among Democratic gubernatorial candidates, it’s axiomatic that retiree benefits will be left untouched. The state must meet its obligations first, the candidates say, before it can ask for concessions from workers.

Two of the state’s pension plans are set to go broke in a decade, experts say, and the cost of funding the system is scheduled to increase until 2023.

While the Democratic candidates mostly agree on the issues — there are some differences over whether, say, to reinstate the estate tax that Christie and the Legislature are phasing out — the main point of contention is who would best advocate for progressive values, especially given Trump’s proposed cuts to Medicaid and hostility to pluralism.

“Governors are going to never have mattered more,” Murphy said, adding that “we’re first up to bat in the Trump presidency.”

Johnson’s campaign released a new seven-figure ad last week that showed a clip of Bernie Sanders ripping Goldman Sachs as a company that helped “destroy our country.”

“As a Goldman Sachs president, Phil Murphy made his fortune in a rigged system,” the narrator says. “Now the Jersey machine has lined up with Murphy and his millions.”

The ad’s tagline: Jim Johnson, the Progressive choice for governor.

Wisniewski, who was Sanders’ state chairman during the Vermont senator’s presidential campaign, accuses Murphy of hypocrisy for investing in member companies of the controversial PennEast Pipeline, a 120-mile underground line that would carry Marcellus Shale gas from Northeast Pennsylvania to New Jersey.

Murphy says he wants to make the Garden State use 100 percent clean energy by 2050, and that if elected governor, he’d put his investments in a blind trust.

He has mostly deflected the attacks and is instead highlighting endorsements from high-profile Democrats such as Al Gore and Joe Biden, who is scheduled to campaign with Murphy on Sunday in Bergen County. (Sanders, who lost to Hillary Clinton in a landslide in New Jersey’s Democratic presidential primary last year, hasn’t endorsed anyone in the governor’s race.)

Former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, a Murphy supporter, warned Democrats against being reflexively anti-Trump without substantive reasons.

“There are working-class, blue-collar Democrats in New Jersey. Are any of our candidates delivering the message that would make them respond? Hopefully they are,” Rendell said, though he acknowledged that New Jersey is more liberal than states Trump won, such as Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan.

Rendell said he held a fund-raiser for Murphy earlier this year at Philadelphia’s Union League. Murphy was the Democratic National Committee’s finance chairman for part of Rendell’s governorship. Rendell said he thought Murphy had a “good economic message, but I don’t know how he’s campaigning.”

Moving to the left is a solid bet in a Democratic primary in blue New Jersey, but it will be “interesting to see if whoever wins feels the need to tack back a little to the center” in the general election, said Bennett, of Third Way. Christie’s decline in popularity is a cautionary tale, he said.

New Jersey residents didn’t sour on Christie because they suddenly realized he was “kind of brash and overbearing,” Bennett said. Rather, as Christie ran for president, “he became this right-wing Republican they didn’t recognize.”

“It’s very possible for Democrats to overplay their hand politically, too,” Bennett said.

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