Crowded Fields, Contested Primaries Come into Focus as Candidates File

Murphy may be unchallengeable, but a battle could be shaping up on Republican side for gubernatorial nomination

Crowded fields for both major parties’ nominations for New Jersey governor became official on Monday, with the filings of six Democrats and five Republicans seeking their parties’ nods to square off in November to succeed Gov. Chris Christie.

Voters in June will also be treated to contests for Senate or Assembly seats, or both, in one party or both in 19 of 40 districts, as a dozen lawmakers give up their seats to run for another office or to retire.

The 279 legislative candidates and 11 gubernatorial hopefuls are the largest fields the state has seen in a dozen years.

Murphy in a walk?

While six Democrats filed for governor, pundits say there won’t be much of a primary, as Phil Murphy, the former Wall Street executive, has been running for so long and has so much money and support within the party that he will be nigh impossible to beat.

Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, said Murphy’s having won the county line “and their organizational GOTV resources” in all 21 counties means he should win a minimum of 200,000 votes.

“That should be more than enough to win the nomination since it is nearly impossible for any off-the-line candidate without a high profile or extensive grassroots network to outperform that number,” he said.

Trying to do just that are two candidates with at least some name recognition — Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D-Union) and Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D-Middlesex) — as well as former federal treasury official Jim Johnson. William Brennan, who filed a suit that was later dismissed against Christie over Bridgegate, and Tenafly Councilman Mark Zinna round out the Democratic field.

Still, Murphy, who announced his candidacy 11 months ago and had already spent nearly $11 million by the end of 2016, is the one to beat.

‘Gripping and grinning’

“It looks to me like Murphy is a lock,” said Matthew Hale, a Seton Hall University professor of political science and public affairs. In addition to the institutional Democratic support, Hale said, “the guy knows how to campaign. He seems to love the gripping and grinning.”

“I think at this point it is near impossible for anyone to defeat Murphy in a primary,” agreed Brigid Harrison, a Montclair State University professor of political science and law, “but I remain convinced that given the broader political context, there is the opportunity for an ‘outsider’ challenger to enter the race and wreak havoc. Partly this is because (of) polling that indicates a comparative lack of satisfaction with the field as it stands; partly this is because of the broader political climate that shows the ‘outsider’ message has been a powerful one that has captured the enthusiasm of many voters.”

The GOP lineup

The Republican primary, however, may wind up being a bit closer. Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno is the favorite, but no one is counting out Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli of the 16th District. The three other filers — Nutley Commissioner Steve Rogers, businessman Joseph “Rudy” Rullo of Little Egg Harbor, and engineering executive Hirsh V. Singh of Princeton — are considered longer shots.

“Clearly Guadagno has the upper hand, but I think Ciattarelli can effectively make a case that he has been the often stand-alone anti-Christie Republican, a message that would resonate with many voters who viewed the Christie administration as among the least popular in history,” Harrison said. “The challenge for Ciattarelli will be raising the necessary funds to combat Guadagno’s party line advantage.”

Murray agreed.

“While Guadagno has the edge on a number of metrics such as money and endorsements, it would be way too premature to count Ciattarelli out,” he said. In the Assemblyman’s favor: “Christie fatigue is widespread even among Republicans, about four-in-10 GOP primary voters are generally anti-establishment in their views, and there is no well-known outsider candidate who can coalesce this group. If Ciattarelli can position himself as an anti-Christie candidate, he can potentially sweep the counties where he has the line and post exceptionally strong second-place finishes in the Guadagno counties to pull out a close statewide victory.”

“I think the Republicans actually have a bit of a race,” said Hale. “Guadagno kind of came out the gate slowly and had some weird missteps. Her opening campaign video appeared sideways on Facebook. In contrast, Jack Ciattarelli came out smoking. He made an attack CD for the NJ chamber-train event that was the talk of the day. I think that there could actually be a real race.”

Contested primaries

Down the ballot, there will be contested primaries in almost half of districts. That’s far more than the 10 percent that had primaries two years ago when only the Assembly was on the ballot. A total of 88 candidates filed in both parties for the Senate, three more than the number that filed the last time the upper house sat for election four years ago. And the 190 Assembly candidates is the largest running for the lower house since 2001, when 194 names were on the ballot.

The primary elections are important because their outcomes usually determine who will win in November in all but a handful of districts because one party or the other dominates in most of the 40 districts.

“Every year we look at open legislative seats in the hopes something will change but it never seems to happen,” Hale said.

One reason for the interest is likely the relatively large number of vacancies: five Senate and seven Assembly seats are open due to the gubernatorial runs of Lesniak and Wisniewski, some retirements, and two Assemblymen giving up their seats to seek higher office.

The Dems in two

The most contested primary for the Democrats is in the 2nd District, which includes troubled Atlantic City. This district, split for years, has an open Assembly seat as incumbent Assembly Republican Chris Brown is giving up his spot to run for the open Senate seat that Democrat Jim Whelan is giving up. Six candidates, including the other incumbent Assemblyman, Vince Mazzeo, are running. Two Republicans filed. Neither Brown nor Democrat Colin Bell, a former Atlantic County freeholder who lost a bid to unseat Brown two years ago, has a primary opponent.

On the GOP side, five candidates are vying for two nominations for the Assembly in the 12th District, which includes parts of Burlington, Middlesex, Monmouth, and Ocean counties. Incumbents Ronald Dancer and Robert Clifton are both running, challenged by the team of Alex Robotin and Eleanor Debbie Walker and by John Franklin Sheard. Sen. Sam Thompson also has a Republican primary opponent in Art Haney of Matawan. Democrats filed two nominations for Assembly and one for Senate.

Ten’s a crowd

There are two district with a total of 10 candidates from both parties on the ballot.

In the 24th in the northwest, Republican Sen. Steven Oroho has a primary opponent in William J. Hayden of Branchville, running on the slogan “Remember the gas tax.” Oroho voted last year to increase the gas tax by 23 cents to fund transportation projects, while eliminating the estate tax and reducing the sales tax by a fraction of a penny. Assemblywoman Gail Phoebus, another Republican, had planned to oppose Oroho but instead is giving up her seat. Incumbent F. Parker Space is running instead with Harold J. Wirths, the former state labor commissioner. They are facing the team of Nathan Orr and David Atwood, both of Sparta. On the Democratic side, Kate Matteson and Gina Trish, both of Blairstown, have filed for the Assembly spots, as has Michael Thomas Pirog of Flanders. The only uncontested spot is the Democratic senate nod, for which only Jennifer Hamilton of Sparta filed.

In the 31st, which covers Bayonne and part of Jersey City, four Republicans are vying for two Assembly spots on the ballot in this very blue district. Democratic incumbents Nicholas Chiaravalloti and Angela McKnight also have a team of challengers in their primary. The parties’ Democratic and Republican senate candidates are unopposed.

Other contested primaries are:

  • In the 1st District, three Republicans for two Assembly spots;
  • In the 3rd, three Democrats, including two incumbents, for two Assembly slots;
  • In the 6th, two incumbents and one challenger for two Assembly nods on the Democratic side;
  • In the 7th, two Democrats for one Senate spot and three, including one incumbent, for two Assembly slots;
  • In the 11th, three Democrats, including two incumbents, for two Assembly nods;
  • In the 13th, two Democrats for a Senate nomination;
  • In the 14th; two Republicans for one Senate spot;
  • In the 15th, two incumbents and one challenger for two Democratic Assembly slots;
  • + In the 17th, the incumbent Democratic senator faces a primary challenge, and the two Assembly incumbents face a duo of Democratic challengers for the lower house nods;

  • In the 20th, three Democrats, including two incumbents, for two Assembly nominations;
  • In the 22nd, two Democratic Assemblymen face a challenger for two lower house ballot spots;
  • In the 26th, three Democrats for two Assembly slots and four Republicans, including the incumbents, for two ballot nods for their party;
  • In the 35th, the incumbent Democratic senator has a primary challenger;
  • In the 37th, two Republicans are facing off for the Senate nomination, and four are vying for the two GOP Assembly spots;
  • In the 40th, three Republicans are seeking the nod for the Senate seat, currently held by a retiring Republican, while three Democrats are vying for two Assembly nominations.
  • The winners of the June 6 primaries in both parties square off, along with any independent candidates, in November’s election.