Wins for Murphy, Guadagno Demonstrate Power of County Organizations

Lee Keough | June 7, 2017 | Elections 2017
Clear victors in the Democratic and Republican gubernatorial primaries were also clear favorites of their party’s political machines

Democrat Phil Murphy, a 59-year-old former Goldman Sachs executive will square off this November against Republican Kim Guadagno, the 57-year-old Lt. Gov. to Chris Christie, in this year’s gubernatorial contest. The vote turned out to be an easy win for the regular county political organizations, as both Murphy and Guadagno were clear favorites of their respective political machines.

“The walk-away from this election is the importance of political parties in New Jersey,” said Brigid Harrison, professor of political science and law for Montclair State University. “Primary voters vote the line here.”

Murphy beat five other candidates, two of whom were well-known state legislators, Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D-Middlesex) and Sen. Ray Lesniak (D-Union), along with a well-heeled undersecretary of the Treasury in the Clinton administration, Jim Johnson. With 99 percent of the vote tallied, Murphy had 48 percent of the Democratic ballots. Both Johnson and Wisniewski each had 22 percent of the vote, with Johnson squeaking by Wisniewski by 1,000 votes to come in second. Lesniak came in fourth with 5 percent of the vote, followed by relative unknowns Bill Brennan (2 percent) and Mark Zinna (1 percent.)

Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno giving her victory speech after winning the 2017 Republican gubernatorial primary
Guadagno had her share of competition but also won big, with 47percent of the votes cast. Her chief opponent, Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli (R-Somerset), earned 31 percent of the vote, compared with Hirsh Singh’s 10 percent, Joseph Rullo’s 7 percent, and Steve Rogers’ 6 percent. Singh, an aerospace engineer, and Rogers, a police officer and Nutley commissioner, are newcomers to state politics. Rullo, an emergency medical technician, ran for U.S. Senate five years ago.

Turnout for Democrats was relatively high for a primary, with about 504,000 votes in a 25 percent turnout. That’s in line with the belief that the antipathy towards President Donald Trump and Gov. Chris Christie has energized the Democratic party, even for local elections. Republicans fielded about 247,000 votes in a 20 percent turnout.

‘A double whammy’

“The Democrats are energized, the Republicans are demoralized both by the national picture and Chris Christie,” said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute.. “It’s a double whammy.”

The November contest will pit Murphy, a former ambassador to Germany under President Barack Obama, against the woman who stood silently behind Gov. Chris Christie for the past seven-and-a-half years. Guadagno is a former federal prosecutor and Monmouth County sheriff who’s also serving as the Christie administration’s secretary of state.

Both candidates are attempting to run against expectations. Murphy has tried to move away from the image of a rich Goldman Sachs executive by adopting a radical proposal to create a New Jersey public bank, which would handle the state’s finances rather than a Wall Street institution. Guadagno has actively disavowed some of Christie’s positions and makes no mention of him on her campaign website.

Guadagno, on Tuesday night, made it clear she wants to be considered apart from Christie. “To the people of New Jersey, I’m running for governor based on my values, based on my record, and based on my principles,” Guadagno said.

In his acceptance speech, Murphy specifically mentioned the public bank, which he said would allow New Jerseyans to invest in themselves “and not Wall Street.”

On the attack

Still, these efforts are unlikely to stick. Guadagno, as well as the Republican Governors Association, quickly attacked Murphy for his Goldman Sachs connection Tuesday. And Murphy is expected to run on a message that is anti-Christie and anti-Trump, painting Guadagno as more of the same.

“Four more years of Christie-style politics won’t clean up the mess that this governor has made,” Murphy said in his acceptance speech. “But we will.”

The messaging of both candidates is likely to revert to familiar Republican versus Democrat refrains. “Phil Murphy is going to reach into your back pocket and take your last dime if he’s elected governor of New Jersey,” Guadagno told her supporters Tuesday. “The only person who will be able to live in the state of New Jersey will be Phil Murphy.” Guadagno also issued a pledge to reduce property taxes, saying if she couldn’t accomplish that goal, she would not run for re-election.

Murphy issued a litany of planned policy reversals from Christie, including fully funded public education, expanded preschool, a $15 minimum wage, and completely funding Planned Parenthood. He was cheered by union representatives who backed him heavily, particularly the NJEA, the state’s teacher union.

Taking aim at Christie and Trump

Murphy said he would aim at two targets during the campaign, Christie and Trump.

“We don’t have a $15 minimum wage or sick leave in New Jersey, not because of Donald Trump because of Chris Christie,” he said. On the other hand, “if we have an EPA administrator who doesn’t believe in climate change or an education secretary who doesn’t believe in public education, that all matters too,” he said.

Despite Murphy’s classic liberal stance, Murray said he didn’t think Murphy would have to pivot to the general election by toning down his rhetoric.

Too far right

“Here are the reasons he doesn’t need to change,” Murray said, “First, it’s a bigger crime in New Jersey to be far right than far left, we’ve see that time and time again. The second reason is Donald Trump and Chris Christie. Guadagno has one on one shoulder, and the other on the other side. She’s just weighted down.”

Despite Murphy’s one-sided victory — and the millions he poured into the race, spending more than $21 million on the primary — Murray said the money issue was not as important to his win as it was with former Gov. Jon Corzine. Money would have been more important, he said, if the predicted candidates, Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop and Sen. President Steve Sweeney, had entered the race. Instead, he said, Murphy was ready with money to step in when Fulop dropped out, but more importantly, Democratic county chairs “really like Murphy. The fact is, he put a lot of time into schmoozing them one on one.”

And that lines up with Harrison’s view that the most important factor in the race isn’t name recognition or money, but the support of county organizations. “Primary voters are loyal.” Noting that Ciattarelli won all the media endorsements, performed well in the debates, and ran a strong campaign, she said when it comes down to it, primary voters stick with their leadership.

Harrison also noted that this primary was a watershed event, both for some of the losing candidates and the state GOP. Lesniak, the longest-serving legislator with nearly 40 years in office, will now exit the stage. It’s unclear what Wisniewski will do, as he too gave up his Assembly seat to run.

Jim Johnson is expected to launch a new campaign for some significant office, using his new name recognition to bolster his candidacy. Rumors are that he might face off against U.S. Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-11). “He is one interesting nugget to come out of all this,” said Harrison.

What’s more, Christie will have to turn over the leadership of the party to Guadagno. “The interesting question now is will he try to help her in this election, or is she going to be left to flounder,” Harrison said.

John Mooney, Colleen O’Dea, and John Reitmeyer contributed to this story.