Almost seven months ahead of what was expected to be a bitter primary battle and over a year before voters will take to the polls to decide New Jersey’s next governor, Democrats in the state look like they’ve already found their candidate: former U.S. Ambassador to Germany and retired Goldman Sachs executive Phil Murphy.
That’s the incredible but apparently unavoidable conclusion many New Jersey Democrats and politicians reached this week as Murphy, a previously unknown entity, continued to secure local and county-level support across the northern half of the state.
The latest round of endorsements came yesterday, when a team of county leaders from Bergen, Passaic and Hudson joined together to back Murphy.
But what was most shocking, and what has convinced many observers to call the race for Murphy this early on, was the decision by a major Democratic competitor — Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester) — to fold his hands and decline a long-anticipated run for the nomination. Last week it was Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop, a rising Democratic star who in the interest of what he called “party unity” joined Murphy on the steps of city hall to offer his endorsement.
That was not the expected scenario. With his deep South Jersey roots, Sweeney’s entrance in the race was supposed to set up a geographic power struggle between his own team and “northerner” Murphy. But in a surprise morning announcement, the ranking Democrat said that he had decided against a campaign for the nomination and that he will run for reelection as Senate president.
The developments dramatically change what was supposed to be a crowded and competitive race for the party’s 2017 nomination, but which Murphy now appears to have all but locked up. Sweeney and Fulop were both expected frontrunners in that race, and their exits — together with Murphy’s burgeoning support system and his deep wealth — will make it very difficult for another candidate without the same resources to gain the same ground. That is according to political experts in the state, who are already calling the race in light of Murphy’s almost insurmountable lead.
“We are now prepared to make our first election call,” tweeted Monmouth County pollster Patrick Murray following Sweeney’s announcement. “Phil Murphy has been elected governor of New Jersey … in 2017.”
Part of the reason Murphy was able to make the kind of progress he has was his unconventionally early entrance into the field, which helped him get a head start on the competition. He launched back in May, using his outsider status to frame his candidacy and claiming his campaign was “not going to be politics as usual.” He set quickly to work — he’d in fact been laying the groundwork beginning more than a year prior, when he launched the middle-class advocacy nonprofit’s New Way New Jersey and New Start New Jersey — frequenting county fundraising events and donating to political candidates up for election.
All that backroom politicking finally bore fruit this month, when Murphy nabbed the endorsements of several powerful Democrats in Bergen County, one of the most densely populated and therefore politically valuable in the state. It’s also in the north, territory that was long expected to go to Fulop in a statewide gubernatorial race. Facing a fractured support base, then, the Hudson County pol decided not to take on the challenge, throwing instead his weight behind Murphy, or so one line of thought goes.
What followed has been a sort of domino-effect of county chairs and party heads falling in line behind Murphy. At a press conference in Hackensack yesterday, a scrum of North Jersey Democrats, including Bergen County Democratic Chairman Lou Stellato, Democratic State Party Chairman John Currie, and Hudson County Democratic Chairman Vince Prieto (D-Hudson), endorsed the candidate, saying it’s time to “unite this state from top to bottom” and calling Murphy the “one man that can bring us all together.” The group also included chairs from Monmouth, Passaic, Hunterdon, Morris, Warren and Sussex counties.
Today, Murphy is expected to receive the endorsement of several Essex County Democrats, including its chairman LeRoy Jones. Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, head of Essex’s political power center and biggest city in the state, offered his support ahead of yesterday’s press conference.
“Let’s get 17 done now, so we all can get back to what we need to do, which is get every Democrat elected on the 16 ticket,” Currie said yesterday. “This is in my opinion a great day for the state of New Jersey.”
While it’s unclear exactly why Sweeney threw in the towel, Murphy’s ability to consolidate support in the north over the past few weeks undoubtedly had something to do with it. In his statement yesterday, Sweeney said that while he believes he “would have been able to win the general election and return the governor’s mansion to Democratic control,” he recognized Murphy’s support in the north has made the prospect “all but impossible.” He also said he intended to hold on to the Senate presidency, which along with three other leadership seats in both houses would be up for grabs under a new Democratic administration.
There has already been speculation as to who would be tapped to fill those seats, including Assembly Budget Chair Gary Schaer (D-36) for Assembly Speaker, an option favored by northern Democrats. Sweeney, meanwhile, has not wasted time amassing support in the legislature for his own re-election.
Matthew Hale, a political professor at Seton Hall University who speculated that Sweeney and his political patron, South Jersey power broker George Norcross, might have cut a deal with Murphy to keep the Democrat on as Senate president, said the developments over the past week underscore just how much power county chairs in the state have in shaping — and in this case, possibly ultimately determining — elections.
“This whole thing just shows how important county chairs are, and how important backroom politics in New Jersey is,” he said. “The fact that so many county chairs jumped from Fulop into Murphy’s arms, and how quickly that changed the math, I think shows you how important those backroom deals are to New Jersey.”
Still, Murphy is likely not going to be entirely without competition in his quest for the nomination in June. At least two other Democrats — state Sen. Ray Lesniak (D-Union) and Assembly Transportation Chair John Wisniewski (D-Middlesex) — are expected to announce plans for a campaign in the next couple of weeks, with Lesniak’s coming as early as today. In an email to NJ Spotlight yesterday, the Democrat said Sweeney’s decision not to run makes him “more determined as ever.”
Lesniak, a progressive standard bearer in the state, has been working hard this week to drum up opposition in Trenton to a bipartisan deal to replenish a depleted Transportation Trust Fund, which is likely to pass during the Legislature’s voting sessions today.
“A head-to-head [versus] Murphy will focus on his buying support and the army of voters supporting me,” Lesniak said.
There’s also former chairman of the state Democratic Party Tom Byrne, who first expressed at the Democratic National Convention in August that he was seriously considering a run for governor. The son of former Gov. Brendan Byrne and a Gov. Chris Christie-appointed chairman of the New Jersey State Investment Council, Byrne has some name recognition and might have an opportunity to distinguish himself as a moderate against a field of more progressive candidates. That’s especially true now that Sweeney, who had previously been considered the token centrist in the race, has backed away.
Contacted by phone yesterday, Byrne told NJ Spotlight that he’s still considering his options but won’t make a final decision until after November 8. He expressed some frustration at the timing of this week’s developments, which take place several months before the June gubernatorial primary and weeks before this year’s presidential election.
“I’m going to let the dust settle and I’m not going to make any announcement until the presidential election is over,” Byrne said. “That’s what I’ve always said. And frankly I say that out of respect to county party leaders who asked us to get through one cycle before talking about the gubernatorial.”
“So I’ve respected that — maybe not wisely, but I did,” he added.
Byrne said Sweeney’s decision will also affect his calculations, but that there’s “still a number of things to think through.”
“Some people say it make it harder, while others people say you have a one on one, and anything can happen in a one on one,” he said.
Lesniak’s critique — the accusation that Murphy is “buying support” in the state — is one of the few sticking points many skeptics have about the candidate. A retired Goldman Sachs executive who saw a huge windfall when the financial giant went public in 1999, Murphy is a multimillionaire self-funder who hasn’t shown any shame in pouring huge amounts of personal money into his campaign, including loaning it $10 million earlier this year.
The Democrat’s wealthy background closely parallels that of former Gov. Jon Corzine, another former Goldman Sachs executive who ended his term widely unpopular with voters. Such a characterization could be used by challengers to attack Murphy in the primary, though Hale said it would be difficult, given the candidate’s apparent popularity with Democratic leaders.
“He (Byrne) can’t write himself a $10 million check. He doesn’t have the party endorsements, the county endorsements,” Hale said of a Byrne-Murphy matchup. “It’s possible that Murphy becomes a disaster of a candidate, and then someone can go and step in down the road if Murphy seems like he’s in real, real trouble. But there’s been no indication that Murphy is that candidate or has any skeletons.”
But Hale noted that much of Murphy’s success thus far has come not from his ability to self-fund, but from from his newcomer status in a state that can tend to corrupt its politicians. Murphy is a relatively fresh face when compared with that of Sweeney and Fulop, not only for political officials but for voters. Hale pointed to recent polling that shows a growing distrust among New Jersey voters of lawmakers in Trenton, a feeling he said has likely been fueled under an embattled Christie administration.
“One of the things I think is potentially interesting about this is I think there is a real anti-Trenton sentiment, and mainly an anti-Chris Christie sentiment,” Hale said. “And you can see that in the pro-casino folks, who looked at the polling numbers after Trenton’s Bad Bet came out and they quit. They were looking at polling numbers showing how unpopular people in Trenton are, and how unpopular New Jersey government is.”
“So the fact that Murphy is an outsider, that he’s not necessarily part of the county machines, and away from the establishment I think that helps explains his popularity a little bit,” he added.