Murphy and Guadagno to face off in race to become New Jersey’s next governor

Andrew Romano
West Coast Correspondent
Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno greets supporters prior to voting during the primary gubernatorial election, in Monmouth Beach, N.J., June 6, 2017. (Photo: Aristide Economopoulos/NJ Advance Media via AP)

As expected, Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno won Tuesday’s five-candidate Republican primary to replace current New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, clobbering her main competitor, Assemblyman Jack Ciatterelli.

“To make New Jersey more affordable, we need a governor who will put people before profits, Main Street before Wall Street, and what’s best for New Jersey families ahead of the special interests,” Guadagno said in her victory speech.

That was a clear shot at the winner of New Jersey’s Democratic primary, Phil Murphy. The former Goldman Sachs financier and U.S. ambassador to Germany routed his five rivals, including former Treasury Department official Jim Johnson and Assemblyman John Wisniewski, by a an equally impressive double-digit margin.

“Today, you helped send a message that progressives and working New Jerseyans are united to end the failed status quo in Trenton and fight back against President Trump in Washington,” Murphy said in a statement.

Both Guadagno and Murphy led by large margins in every public poll released since the start of primary season, and that’s part of the reason their races didn’t garner much attention from the press — or the public. Few observers seriously doubted they would win.

It’s tempting to assume that November’s outcome is preordained too: Qunnipiac’s latest general-election polling matchup shows Murphy leading Guadagno 50 percent to 25 percent.

Yet 57 percent of voters told Quinnipiac that they didn’t know enough about Guadagno or Murphy to form an opinion.

Guadagno could make this race more competitive than anyone anticipates — and potentially show endangered blue-state Republicans how to fight for their political lives in the age of Donald Trump.

Phil Murphy participates in a Democratic gubernatorial primary debate in Newark, N.J. (Photo: Julio Cortez/AP)

A native of Needham, Mass., Murphy studied at Harvard University and the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School before embarking on a career at Goldman Sachs, where he spent the next 23 years rising through the ranks. He headed the firm’s Frankfurt, Germany, office, served as president of Goldman Sachs Asia, secured a spot on the management committee alongside Hank Paulson and Gary Cohn, and retired as a senior director, all the while amassing a huge fortune.

After leaving the private sector, Murphy entered politics and public service, first as a member of a New Jersey public-sector employee benefits task force, then as national finance chair of the Democratic National Committee from 2006 to 2009, and finally as President Obama’s ambassador to Germany.

In May 2016, Murphy became the first candidate to announce his candidacy for New Jersey governor. Over the next several months he spent heavily — plowing $16 million of his own money in the primary contest — to lock down the all-important backing of New Jersey’s powerful Democratic Party county chairs. The strategy was successful: Every county boss eventually endorsed Murphy, while his most dangerous rivals — Iraq War veteran and Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop, and Senate President Stephen Sweeney — declined to enter the race.

During the primary, Murphy faced much criticism for his ties to Wall Street, his insider status and his personal wealth. “As a Goldman Sachs president, Phil Murphy made his fortune in a rigged system,” Johnson carped in one ad, channeling Bernie Sanders. “Now the Jersey machine has lined up with Murphy and his millions.”

In response, Murphy veered left on policy, endorsing a $15-per-hour minimum wage and a New Jersey public bank, while ratcheting up his rhetorical attacks on Donald Trump.

“I’m a modest student of Germany history, and I know what was being said about somebody else in the 1920s,” Murphy declared during one town hall, comparing Trump to Adolf Hitler. “And you could unfortunately drop in names from today into those observations from the 1920s, and the moves that have been made early on only aid and abet that argument.”

Again, the strategy worked — especially in a low-turnout Democratic primary. Whether it will work in the general election remains to be seen.

New Jersey Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno listens as Gov. Chris Christie announces staff changes in Trenton, N.J., Dec. 22, 2011. (Photo: Mel Evans/AP)

Guadagno certainly has her work cut out for her. For the last seven years, she has served as Chris Christie’s lieutenant governor. If voters know anything about her — and many still don’t — it’s that she has spent a ton of time dutifully working alongside the least popular governor in America. (In fact, with a current approval rating of 18 percent, Christie is statistically tied for least popular Garden State governor of the last four decades.)

Trump is also a problem. He lost New Jersey to Hillary Clinton by 14 percentage points and now boasts a negative 35 to 56 percent job approval rating in the state. It’s not a good time to be a member of the Garden State GOP, to put it mildly.

Demographics don’t help, either. There are now nearly 900,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans in New Jersey, up from an average edge of about 700,000 over the last eight years.

That said, Guadagno, a former U.S. attorney and Monmouth County sheriff, enters the general-election contest with some very real assets.

She refused to vote for Trump in November, declaring on Twitter that “no apology can excuse away Mr. Trump’s reprehensible comments degrading women,” and she frequently distances herself from Christie by pointing out that she doesn’t believe “yelling and screaming and shouting at everyone gets anything done.”

“We’re completely different in style,” Guadagno said in February. “Plainly, we’re completely different how we approach problems in New Jersey.”

Like most New Jerseyans, Guadagno is moderate on social and environmental issues. She is pro-choice; she believes the state needs to do more to combat climate change; she opposed the GOP’s controversial American Health Care Act; and, despite her Iowa roots, speaks with the distinctive blue-collar bark of a South Jersey native.

While Murphy has expressed a willingness to raise taxes to reduce New Jersey’s massive financial shortfall, Guadagno’s flat refusal to consider a rate hike of any kind could resonate in a state where voters say their top issue, by far, is lifting the load of what have become the highest property taxes in the nation.

In the end, however, the Trump and Christie headwinds may be too much for Guadagno to overcome. But Murphy might have a challenge of his own to contend with: hubris.

Believing that victory in November is all but assured, the Democrat recently agreed to abandon his major financial advantage and limit his general-election spending to $13.8 million in public matching funds. And seeing how riled up progressives are right now, he may not even bother to tack to the center in the fall — which would give Guadagno a chance to connect with the moderate voters who typically decide the Garden State’s gubernatorial races.

Either way, much is at stake. For Democrats, it’s the opportunity to finally transform New Jersey into one of only seven states where their party controls the governor’s mansion and both legislative chambers — a prerequisite for passing a bold, progressive agenda.

For Republicans, it’s the chance to prove that their candidates can still compete for blue-state voters — despite Trump’s best efforts to alienate everyone but his base.

Depending on how clever a campaign Guadagno runs — and how overconfident an opponent she faces — she could have a better chance in November than many pundits are currently predicting.

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