Friday, October 27, 2017

New Jersey Governor Election

Status: Republican Open
2016 Presidential Result: Blue State (East)

Outlook: Likely Democrat

The year after a Presidential election brings about off year contests for Governor in two states. The race this year in New Jersey is easily considered to be the less competitive of the two.

Typically, the Garden State takes the opportunity to elect a Governor from the opposite party that has just won the White House. It is now more than a 30 year trend. Considering a divisive Republican won the election last year, and New Jersey, a state where Donald Trump has faced business failures, happens to be one that often leans towards Democrats, it seems pretty certain that the Governorship will revert back to that party after eight years of GOP control, mostly during the Obama years.

The current Governor Chris Christie is nationally known but has seen his political fortunes, both nationwide and locally take some major hits. After a successful first term, he was easily reelected in 2013 and seen as one of the frontrunners for the 2016 Republican Presidential nomination. Questions though arose about the activities of his staff during that campaign including the infamous "Bridgegate" episode that produced embarrassing headlines for Christie and legal problems for some of his top aides. His relationship with the legislature in the state deteriorated further during his second term and the always combative Governor saw his popularity drop as more people viewed him as too much of a loud mouthed bully.

Still though, Christie had his fans who appreciated his ability to have won office in a Democrat heavy state. He launched a campaign for President, but beyond some plaudits for his bare knuckles primary debate style towards such opponents as Marco Rubio, his support never materialized. After finishing way back in the pack of New Hampshire, Christie quit the race. He shocked many by endorsing long-time friend Donald Trump, becoming the first establishment figure to do so. Many thought Christie was on the verge of becoming Trump's running-mate, but he was not picked and like he was after he was passed over by Mitt Romney in 2012, was reportedly quite peeved. Nonetheless, Christie was a Trump surrogate and after the surprising Presidential win, he was thought of as a potential Attorney General or other high position. The Governor had run afoul of Trump, perhaps at some point on Election Night, reportedly regarding a dirty cell phone, or during the brief time was led the Trump Transition team before being moved out of that role. After all that, Christie was not offered any position and he would be stuck serving his final year as New Jersey's lame duck Governor.

For the past year, polls have shown Christie as perhaps one of the most unpopular Governors in the history of American politics. It has definitely been quite a fall and the state is definitely in the mood for a new Governor. None of this is good news for the current Republican nominee, who happens to have served as Christie's Lt. Governor (the first the state has ever had) during the past eight years.

Republican Kim Gaudagno, who also serves as Secretary of State, benefited from her partnership with Christie when the Administration was new, but now, he is more of a very large political anchor. In spite of this, she solidly won this year's Republican primary over opponents who ran to her right, and who were far more willing to embrace Donald Trump, than the Lt. Governor, who unlike her boss in Trenton, refused to support Trump in 2016. State Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli finished roughly 16 points behind. Nobody in the GOP field ran as an ally of Christie.

At this point though, Trump is more popular in New Jersey than Christie is, and Gaudagno has found it more necessary to keep her distance from the Governor she twice ran with and touted. Christie has seemed to understand her need for space. He admitted he voted for her in the primary, despite the heavy criticism she has been giving him recently, including when he shut the state's beaches down this past summer, only to be seen lounging with his family on the closed waterfronts. While she has been seen in the past as a talented politician with cross party appeal, Gaudagno is seriously hampered in New Jersey this year by both Trump and Christie. Had Christie been given a position in the federal government, or had he just resigned early, the Lt. Governor would have taken over and become the incumbent, and would likely be in at least a somewhat better position in this race.

The Democrat primary for this open seat was expected to be more competitive than that held by Republicans, but in actuality, the result was slightly more lopsided, as 48 percent voted to nominate Phil Murphy, a very wealthy Goldman Sachs executive who served as Ambassador to Germany during the first four years of the Obama Administration. Goldman Sachs is often derided by the left-wing of the party, but Murphy followed the template of former New Jersey Senator and Governor Jon Corzine, of past Wall Street success, and torpedoed his political opponents with loads of money. Finishing second in the primary, about 26 points behind was Jim Johnson, an African-American former Treasury Department official. In a close third place was State Assemblyman and former state party Chairman John Wisniewski. The populist pitches against Murphy and his Goldman Sachs ties clearly did not work.

Immediately, Murphy was seen as the strong frontrunner over Gaudagno and not much has changed. He has had a persistent large lead in the polls, although Murphy is not exactly seen as a beloved political figure, allowing the Republican to have semi-respectable showing in some surveys. Both candidates had to pick running-mates for Lt. Governor after securing the nomination and both placed emphasis on racial and gender diversity. Murphy picked Sheila Oliver, an African-American Assemblywoman who had served as Speaker while Gaudagno picked the lesser known Carlos Rendo, the Cuban born Mayor of Woodcliff Lake.

One intriguing aspect of this race is that the winner may soon have to pick a U.S. Senator. Democrat Robert Mendendez is currently on trial in federal court and most expect he will be a guest at a federal institution before too long. The decision will likely happen though before New Jersey's next Governor is sworn in or even perhaps elected in less than two weeks. Could incumbent Governor Christie attempt to appoint a Republican to serve through the 2018 election? That would create a firestorm and Democrats would be insistent that the newly elected Governor name the replacement, similar to the brouhaha over replacing Antonin Scalia on the U.S. Supreme Court.

There does not seem to be much drama in the race with Murphy seemingly holding a lead in the polls of about 15 percent, as well as a huge financial advantage. Democrats will be happy to celebrate any victory they can get and they can likely expect one here. There does not seem to be much Gaudagno can do, as she tries to separate herself from both Trump and Christie, while also trying to appeal to their conservative and/or populist supporters on issues like crime, taxes, and sanctuary cities.

She has to wonder just how different things might be, had Hillary Clinton won the Presidency last year, or if Chris Christie had not fallen into such disfavor.