WASHINGTON ― Next week, voters in New Jersey will begin the process of choosing a new governor, an election that former Vice President Joe Biden recently called the “single most important race in the country.” Yet barely anyone outside of the state is paying attention.
One would think the race to replace Chris Christie, the most unpopular governor in the nation and a favorite Democratic boogeyman, would draw more interest. Democrats have their best opportunity this year to flip a seat from red to blue, a move that would bolster the Donald Trump resistance and give the party unified control of the Garden State’s government ― a distinction it currently holds in only six states.
The June 6 party primaries have largely been eclipsed by contests in other states, however. Special elections in Kansas, Montana and Georgia, as well as the Virginia gubernatorial race, have drawn more news coverage. The four Democratic primary contenders have contributed to the problem by struggling to differentiate themselves from one another on policy.
“I think all four candidates have said basically the same thing. They have essentially the same broad principles; they each say it slightly differently,” said Catherine Riihimaki, a member of Indivisible Garden State Values, a grassroots resistance group in the state.
The front-runner in the Democratic primary, Phil Murphy, is a onetime Goldman Sachs executive and a former U.S. ambassador to Germany in President Barack Obama’s administration. The 59-year-old millionaire has the backing of much of the Democratic establishment ― including Biden, who recently stumped on his behalf. Murphy is liked by the unions, an influential constituency in the state. He also holds a massive cash advantage: The candidate has poured at least $20 million into his campaign so far. (On Wednesday, in a sign of confidence, Murphy’s campaign announced he will participate in the state’s public financing program if he wins the primary, which would limit his spending for the Nov. 7 general election.)
A poll conducted by Stockton University last week found Murphy leading his nearest Democratic competitor by a 3-to-1 margin.
On the Republican side, New Jersey Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, Christie’s favored successor, leads Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli by a similar margin.
The Democratic nominee is expected to hold an advantage over the Republican in November, partly because of the drag that Christie’s unpopularity has had on the GOP field and partly because the state favored Democrat Hillary Clinton by a wide 14-point margin in the presidential election last year.
The fact that New Jersey Democrats are coalescing around a wealthy banking executive so soon after the fall of Jon Corzine, a Goldman Sachs executive turned politician whose one term as governor was derailed by a widespread corruption scandal in 2009, is a little surprising. However, the state is home to many Wall Street executives.
Murphy’s competitors have seized on his banking background in hopes of appealing to supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). An ad released last week by attorney Jim Johnson, a distant second in the Stockton University poll, ripped Murphy for making his fortune “in a rigged system” and blasted state Democrats for lining up “with Murphy and his millions.” State Assemblyman John Wisniewski, another candidate in the Democratic primary who chaired Sanders’ New Jersey presidential campaign, blasted Murphy as “a Goldman Sachs banker masquerading as a progressive” in an email to supporters earlier this year.
That line of attack has not proved very effective. Sanders’ son, Levi, has endorsed Murphy. Democrats and activists in New Jersey who spoke with HuffPost this week also described Murphy as the real deal, a fresh voice with progressive credentials who would bring change to the government in Trenton.
“He didn’t just wake up and decide he wants to be governor. He’s been in the field for the last three years,” as a community organizer, said Lizette Delgado-Polanco, the vice chair of the New Jersey State Democratic Committee. “He’s not a Johnny-come-lately. He has been working in our communities.”
Riihimaki, too, said that concerns about how Murphy made his money years ago are overblown.
“He’s gotten a lot of grief for having been professionally successful. I’m uncomfortable with labeling someone as corrupt or greedy just based on where they worked,” she told HuffPost.
Johnson, the underdog in the primary, would become the state’s first African-American governor if elected in November. The former Treasury Department official in the Clinton administration, who has a compelling personal history, has built his campaign around the themes of social justice and economic equality.
In an interview with HuffPost this week, the 56-year-old former criminal attorney said he would be the best choice to bring New Jersey out of the Christie era and join Democratic governors in pushing back against the Trump administration’s assault on immigrant rights and criminal justice reform.
“The state needs an advocate as well as an executive,” he said, citing his experience helping prosecute men who were burning churches across the South in the 1990s.
Johnson also said lawmakers in Washington should begin impeachment proceedings if an independent review by former FBI Director Robert Mueller, with whom Johnson is acquainted, finds Trump obstructed justice in urging the FBI to end its investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election.
“If after an independent review the findings are such … then that would be an appropriate course of action,” he said. “It has to be a process ― and very clear that it has been fair.”
Christie’s failed tenure looms large in the GOP race. Ciattarelli has attacked Guadagno for her proximity to the governor, and with good reason. A survey from Quinnipiac University released earlier this month showed Christie with a shockingly low 18 percent approval rating.
“Seven years with him have done a lot of damage to her,” said Delgado-Polanco. “He ruled by a strong arm, and he really did not let her shine during his reign. It’s very difficult for people to forget that.”
Guadagno will likely look to distance herself from Christie by embracing another brash voice with ties to Atlantic City: former real estate mogul and casino owner Donald Trump. The lieutenant governor said last week she’d welcome the president to campaign with her in the general election.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article said only two states’ governments were held by Democrats. There are six states in which Democrats control the governorship and both houses of the legislature.