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Candidates for Governor Name Their Running Mates … But Does It Matter?

Pollsters say people tend to vote the top of the ticket. Besides, a lieutenant governor can be low profile to the point of invisibility

Carlos Rendo
Woodcliff Lake Mayor Carlos Rendo is Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno's pick for her running mate.

The major parties’ gubernatorial nominees have chosen running mates that fulfill at least one accepted requirement — to differ demographically from the candidates themselves — but it’s unclear how much their choices are likely to help their chances at winning in November.

Democrat Phil Murphy announced his pick of Assemblywoman Sheila Oliver of East Orange on Wednesday, while current Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, the Republican nominee, is expected to announce today her choice of Woodcliff Lake Mayor Carlos Rendo. This was big news in New Jersey political spheres, but will anyone else care?

Assemblywoman Sheila Oliver
Assemblywoman Sheila Oliver was chosen by Democrat Phil Murphy as his running mate.

“Lieutenant governor picks have relatively little impact with voters,” said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute. “As a pollster, this doesn’t mean anything to me. Very few voters know the lieutenant governor (Guadagno) has been the lieutenant governor for the last seven-and-a-half years.

The invisible lieutenant governor?

Monmouth’s most recent poll, a post-general election survey released July 12, found that 61 percent of registered voters had no opinion of Guadagno, despite her having been elected twice with Christie and serving in office since January 2010.

“What it really boils down to is, ‘What is the rationale for your pick? What are you trying to achieve?’” Murray added.

To answer that question, Murray and others agreed that each pick brings, at the least, diversity to the tickets — Oliver is a black woman and Rendo is a Cuban male — and neither choice would hurt the nominees’ chances.

“It’s pretty clear these were strategic choices, aimed at checking off boxes the candidates can’t themselves,” said Bob McHugh, an adjunct professor at Rutgers University who served as spokesman for two former Republican governors and a Democratic U.S. Senator from New Jersey.

But while they see clear value in the choice of Oliver, given her position as former speaker of the Assembly, they are less certain about how much the choice of Rendo will be worth to Guadagno.

Another introduction

“I don’t know her running mate at all,” said Brigid Harrison, a professor of political science and law at Montclair State University. “That’s not to say the candidate is not well suited for the position, but I assume most voters will be unfamiliar with him, as well. That’s another introduction Guadagno will need to make.”

While agreeing the pick was likely a “tactical move” designed to bring more Latino voters out to support Guadagno, Harrison added, “I wonder if her candidacy wouldn’t have benefitted from someone with more experience, more name-recognition … with deep pockets.”

Rendo was one of four co-chairs of the New Jersey effort to nominate Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) for president last year. He is credited with raising money for Rubio, who dropped out of the GOP primary race in mid-March 2016. According to data from the Federal Election Commission, New Jerseyans contributed more than $450,000 to Rubio’s presidential campaign, a drop in the bucket considering his campaign alone raised $52.3 million. It’s also impossible to know how much of that amount Rendo might have brought in, or whether he helped raise any of the $110 million in spending outside committees did.

Trouble raising cash

Having a running mate who can bring in contributions would help Guadagno, who reportedly is having trouble raising money for her campaign. She has not filed any general election reports yet, but she raised $1.3 million for her primary, and received another $2.2 million in public matching funds, according to the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission. Murphy raised about $5 million, not including his own contributions, for the primary and has reported $775,000 in contributions for the general election so far, ELEC records show.

“Any help with fundraising would be welcome, given the challenges Kim Guadagno has had,” said Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University.

Rendo could help Guadagno in other ways, Dworkin continued, because he is someone from outside Trenton politics who allied with a presidential candidate who was not the now very unpopular Gov. Chris Christie, from whom Guadagno has been trying to distance herself.

“His pedigree is that he did not get on the Christie bandwagon,” Dworkin said.

Can Rendo deliver votes?

As for picking someone who can help attract votes from a geographic base, another reason a candidate often chooses a running mate, it’s unclear whether Rendo will be able to deliver votes from his Bergen County base, given he is the mayor of a borough with fewer than 6,000 people.

“Polling has shown that people tend to make a decision based on the person at the top of the ticket,” Dworkin added.

And while the state’s most populous county used to be a tossup, it has more recently voted blue; the Democratic party swept all six countywide seats on the ballot last November. Still, it has the state’s second-largest concentration of Republicans after Ocean County (126,131) and a strong showing there would help Guadagno’s chances in November.

Murphy’s payback to the party base

Murphy’s choice is seen as both a payback to the Democratic party base and an acknowledgement of the power of Essex County’s Democratic committee. The county also has the greatest number of registered Democrats, almost 250,000, of any county.

“Essex remains an enormous Democratic party base,” Harrison said.

Oliver’s background — born in Newark and “always known to be advocating for the underdog” — is also helpful to the wealthy Murphy, a former Wall Street executive who served as ambassador to Germany under President Barack Obama.

“The life experience and perspective she brings as an African-American woman from Essex County is probably quite different from his as a white male in northern Monmouth,” said John Weingart, associate director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University.

The Guadagno campaign tried to minimize that potential benefit almost immediately.

‘An out-of-touch millionaire’

“Nominating Sheila Oliver won’t hide the fact that Phil Murphy is an out-of-touch millionaire from Goldman Sachs who made millions in the lead up to the financial crisis that caused tens of thousands of New Jerseyans to lose their homes,” said campaign spokesman Ricky Diaz.

And her choice also follows one of the recommendations in a report released last week that Weingart co-authored as director of the Center on the American Governor, which urged the nominees to choose for their administration people diverse from the potential governor in background and experience. Oliver has served in the Assembly since 2004, including four years as its speaker, but has been involved in politics for more than two decades, serving as a member of the Democratic State Committee and a member of the East Orange Board of Education beginning in 1994.

“Unlike him, she has extensive experience as a candidate, legislator and legislative leader,” Weingart said.

The value of experience

In announcing Oliver, Murphy highlighted her experience: “In the Assembly, Sheila has been a strong leader in standing up for working people against powerful interests ... She’s been a leader in the battles for equal pay, increases in the minimum wage, and making millionaires and corporations pay their fair share. And time after time she voted to override Gov. Christie’s mean-spirited vetoes of Planned Parenthood funding.”

Sources say Murphy had also been considering other women with legislative experience: among them, Assemblywomen Shavonda Sumter of Passaic, who is African-American, and Valerie Vainieri Huttle of Bergen. But Oliver is considered least likely to try to use the lieutenant governor position as a springboard to the governorship in eight years, assuming Murphy wins and runs for re-election. That may be especially meaningful to some Democrats who may want to succeed Murphy – two notables are Sweeney and Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop, both of whom were pursuing gubernatorial runs but chose not to get into the race when the party closed ranks around Murphy early on.

Oliver may not have great name recognition outside of Essex County and north Jersey, but she is still someone who can get the Democratic base excited and help get the vote out. Harrison said, given the results of the 2016 presidential election, “Democrats need to be sensitive to the roles race and ethnicity play in voting, and given the kind of criticisms lobbied against (Murphy) because of his background, he is demonstrating a commitment to the base of the party.”

It’s unclear if Guadagno could have made a much better choice. The position of lieutenant governor of New Jersey is still so new — Guadagno is the first — and Christie did not give her a major role in his administration, so second in command is not a highly sought-after job.

“The only power the lieutenant governor has in New Jersey is whatever the governor decides to give him or her,” Murray said.

He said there are few people who could help Guadagno enough to overcome what is currently a more than 20-point deficit in the polls, mentioning as one possibility comedian and radio show host Joe Piscopo, an independent who flirted with a gubernatorial run but instead endorsed Guadagno.

Said McHugh, “I don’t know if she picked Abraham Lincoln as lieutenant governor if that would have helped her.”

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