Democrat Phil Murphy announced yesterday that he’s officially running for governor next year. The move gives the newcomer with low name recognition a jump on a party primary that many believe could turn out to be more important than the November election.
Murphy, a former U.S. ambassador to Germany and retired Goldman Sachs executive, is the first person from either party to become an official candidate in the 2017 gubernatorial election. While he’s stressing the value of his outsider status in an initial introduction to voters, to be a successful candidate he’ll also have to convince them he’s not another Jon Corzine, the last Democrat with a Wall Street pedigree to run for governor.
After more than six years with Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican whose popularity has dropped to record lows this year, many in the State House believe New Jersey voters will almost certainly be picking a Democrat as his successor. That means the June 2017 Democratic primary, now little more than a year away, could decide the next governor. The Democrats also have an advantage because neither party has held the governor’s office for more than two consecutive terms since 1970.
In the primary, Murphy is likely to face Senate President Stephen Sweeney, Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop, and several others with bigger political resumes than his. Opinion polls suggest Murphy is not well known in New Jersey outside of political circles, and an early start gives him a chance to build his brand.
“It certainly advances the calendar,” said Krista Jenkins, a political science professor and executive director of Fairleigh Dickinson University’s PublicMind Poll.
Murphy announced his entrance into the race yesterday afternoon with a roughly two-minute YouTube video that stressed his background and the issues he plans to promote as a candidate. They include the minimum wage, gun violence, the economy, pay equity for women, and reducing lead poisoning, he said.
“I’m taking the unusual step of announcing my candidacy for governor a year ahead of the election because my campaign is not going to be politics as usual,” said Murphy, a married father of four who lives in Middletown.
Murphy, in his announcement, also stressed his status as a newcomer to seeking public office. That’s a theme that Republican businessman and current GOP presidential frontrunner Donald Trump has seized on this year amid voter frustration at the national level with conventional politics and politicians.
“Here’s what this campaign is not about, serving the political insiders,” Murphy said. “I don’t owe the insiders anything.”
But Murphy is also joining the race as the least-known Democratic contender despite a resume that includes serving more than three years as President Obama’s ambassador to Germany and spending three years before that as the national finance chair for the Democratic National Committee.
More recently in New Jersey, Murphy founded a nonprofit organization in 2014 that’s dedicated to middle-class issues. That group has been holding a series of policy events, including a Latino policy forum earlier this month. Murphy has also been involved in a political fund with a similar mission.
Yet according to a survey conducted last year by the PublicMind Poll, just 3 percent of the New Jersey voters who were polled by Fairleigh Dickinson University said they had a favorable opinion of Murphy, with 89 percent saying they had never heard of him. Sweeney’s favorability rating was 17 percent in the same poll, followed by Fulop at 9 percent.
“Does it make sense for him to announce (now)? Sure, because he needs to build name recognition,” Jenkins said of Murphy.
Patrick Murray, the director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, said the timing of Murphy’s announcement also syncs up well with what’s happening right now on the Democratic side of the 2016 presidential contest. Many Democratic voters and party activists who’ve been energized by Bernie Sanders, the U.S. senator from Vermont who is trailing Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination, could eventually see Murphy as someone to focus on once Sanders fizzles out.
“It is trying to gin up some of these folks in New Jersey who are now organizing for Bernie Sanders,” Murray said. “Give them a vessel in which they can carry on these activities into the gubernatorial (election) next year.”
By contrast, Sweeney (D-Gloucester) has frequently collaborated with Christie on a number of issues during their respective tenures, including capping property tax increases and reforming public-employee benefits. That’s likely put him in the moderate lane heading into next June’s party primary, leaving Murphy and Fulop to vie for the more liberal primary voters.
Sweeney was asked about Murphy’s announcement yesterday following an event in the State House that focused on increasing the minimum wage. Earlier in the day, a bill Sweeney is sponsoring that would increase New Jersey’s minimum wage to $15 was approved by the Senate Labor Committee.
“I think he’s a nice guy. I’m not going to say a bad thing about Phil Murphy,” said Sweeney, who added that he wasn’t surprised by Murphy’s announcement. Fulop could not be reached for comment.
But Sweeney also brought up the name of Corzine, defeated by Christie in 2009 after only one term in office. Like Murphy, Corzine had a stint with Goldman Sachs on his resume.
“He’s going to run how he wants to run,” Sweeney said. “Jon Corzine did the same thing.”
Jenkins, the FDU professor, said it’s unclear right now whether that similarity in Murphy’s and Corzine’s backgrounds will end being a hindrance for Murphy.
“It’s too early to tell,” Jenkins said.
And she said the notion that Democrats have an easy path to getting the governor’s office in early 2018 when Christie’s second term expires is also not a given at this point. Kim Guadagno, currently New Jersey’s first lieutenant governor, has expressed interest in running, and she recently announced the creation of what she’s calling a “think tank” to start talking about important policy issues. Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick (R-Union) has also been talked about as a potential GOP candidate.
“I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s a slam dunk,” Jenkins said of the assumption the GOP has no chance to win in next year’s gubernatorial election. “There’s still a way to go.”