By James Gao
Brash, unpopular, term-limited New Jersey governor Chris Christie lacks a career plan once he leaves office next year. In the final months of his governorship, Christie held a brief stint as a sports radio show host, taking advantage of his natural talent at antagonizing the people of New Jersey. In fact, his part-time job was quickly cut short after an aggressive shouting match ended with him calling one of his own constituents a “bum” and a “Communist”.
Christie, once a serious contender for president and potential leader of the GOP, has seen his approval ratings plummet in the final months of his second term, now sitting at a whopping fifteen percent. Controversies riddled Christie’s second term, from the infamous “Bridgegate” that involved a chaotic lane closure on the George Washington bridge, to pictures emerging of Christie lounging on a state beach that budgetary failures kept shut from the general public. Christie’s eight-year tenure, largely viewed as a failure on both sides of the aisle, have dropped New Jersey’s credit ratings and left the state with inefficient transportation infrastructure. However, as the governor puts it himself, “I don’t care.” As he approaches the last stretch of his time in office, Christie has little reason to worry about his constituents; when his term ends in January, most New Jersey residents will not be sorry to see their governor go.
Yet, despite the general population’s discontent with Christie, there has been very little interest in who succeeds him this November. The two candidates vying to rejuvenate a post-Christie New Jersey have found that the race to replace the nation’s most unpopular governor has been unusually low-profile. In fact, despite Joe Biden labelling it as “the most important race of the year for Democrats,” a poll ahead of the primaries in June found that over one-third of all voters didn’t know enough about the candidates to form an opinion. The election’s results will be a strong indicator of the ever-changing American political scene after the first year of Trump’s presidency, and has significant implications for the future of both political parties, both on the state level and nationally.
Kim Guadagno of Monmouth County is the Republican candidate in November’s general election. She is notable for being New Jersey’s first Lieutenant Governor (second-in-command) under Christie, where she has served since 2009. With Christie’s deeply unpopular shadow looming over the state, her close ties to the governor and his controversy-riddled administration have proven to be much more of a curse than a blessing in this year’s election. Guadagno faces the seemingly impossible task of defending her achievements and experience as Lieutenant Governor while simultaneously distancing herself from the boss she achieved them under. So far, this difficult juggling act has proven crippling for Guadagno’s campaign. Christie’s inability to step out of the limelight makes it impossible for her to differentiate herself enough from him in the eyes of voters. Instead, he continues to spar with his own running mate, leaving an impression of a fractured Republican Party and setting Guadagno up to fail.
However, Guadagno’s challenges extend far beyond the state borders. An outspoken critic of Donald Trump from the very beginning, her previous words about the sitting president are coming to bite her back. During last year’s campaign cycle, she was quick to attack Trump after his previous comments about women became public, and publicly stated that she would not vote for him. Now, her actions have isolated her from the rest of the Republican Party, with key donors such as the RNC and the Republican Governors Association opting to stay out of the race and not provide critical funding for the Lt. Governor. Sources mention that the RNC views Guadagno as being disloyal to the president, and that “officials view her race as a losing cause.” Without the Trump-centric GOP backing her, Guadagno’s desperate need to raise more money quickly may have been the key factor in choosing the former fundraising chair of Marco Rubio’s campaign as her running mate. Carlos Rendo, the state’s only Republican Latino mayor, has promised that he will “reach out to Marco” and attempt to tap into new funds, and capitalize on anti-Trump sentiments in New Jersey with the help of one of the GOP’s leaders. Rendo, if successful, will prove crucial to saving Guadagno’s gubernatorial bid.
Guadagno attempts to avoid the controversy surrounding Christie by making tax reform the key priority of her campaign. She has repeatedly labelled property taxes as “New Jersey’s ‘number one’ issue,” and promises to cut taxes for homeowners. She is socially moderate on most major issues, favoring school choice, a decriminalization of marijuana and a mild increase in regulations for greenhouse gases. But for the voters of New Jersey, Guadagno’s policy positions won’t matter in November. Her main task now is to stand on her own two feet and cast aside two of the nation’s most unpopular politicians - which proves extremely difficult to do when the politicians are as outspoken and loud as they are hated.
Democrat Phil Murphy, also from Monmouth County, seeks to capitalize on Guadagno’s struggles. An accredited former Goldman Sachs leader who spearheaded the investment bank’s Asia division and later served as the German ambassador under President Obama, Murphy fits the model of an “establishment” politician perfectly. He used his impressive resume, high-profile endorsements, and swathes of funding to coast to an easy victory in the Democratic primary over several Bernie Sanders-esque grassroots candidate. His victory came across as a symbol of the strength of the “establishment” in the ongoing struggle that divides Democrats across the nation. Murphy’s main message is that of helping New Jersey turn over a new leaf after Christie’s disastrous second term, seeking to paint himself as a progressive who works for the New Jersey people.
While Guadagno’s funding falls short, Murphy suffers from none of the same pitfalls. With a net worth of hundreds of millions of dollars, Murphy has not been hesitant to tap into his own personal wealth to further his gubernatorial campaign. He spent over $20 million in the primary campaign (in contrast, the second highest spender spent around $2 million) - but agreed to cap his spending at $13.8 million for the general elections. His gubernatorial ambitions extend back to 2014, when he founded the non-profit organization “New Start New Jersey” that was widely viewed as preparation for a 2017 bid that has now come to fruition. Murphy has also spent millions donating to Democratic committees and organizations across the state, which made their subsequent endorsements this year unsurprising. Backing from major Democratic party leaders like Joe Biden and Cory Booker made it clear that the struggling party would fight tooth and nail on Murphy’s behalf. Phil Murphy entered this election with all the cards stacked in his favour. Now, he just has to play the game correctly.
Despite being a member of the 1%, Murphy wants to make it clear that he will do his best to fight against them. Addressing criticism from far-left grassroots activists and anti-establishment conservatives alike, Murphy faces the difficult task of shaking his image as a “Goldman Sachs big banker” and appealing to many who are tired of “establishment politics”. His running mate - Sheila Oliver, a former Speaker of the Assembly who was the first African-American woman to hold that role - differs greatly from him in their upbringing and professional experience. Her appeal to the “ordinary person” may prove key to garnering support for Murphy come November.
Policy-wise, Murphy’s viewpoints align with those on the centre-left: progressive enough to capture most Democratic votes, while centrist enough to not scare away moderates. In contrast to Guadagno, Murphy believes that an additional $1.3 billion tax increase on New Jersey’s wealthiest is necessary for continued economic growth - and he hopes to supplement that tax by fully legalizing (and taxing) marijuana in the state. He intends to use these funds to help relieve New Jersey’s growing pension debt, which now exceeds $50 billion. In addition, to the particular pleasure of public school students across the state, Murphy hopes to end PARCC testing and decrease the role of standardized testing in New Jersey’s schools.
Barring any fatal campaign mistake, Murphy’s path to victory looks clear. A poll in late July found that Guadagno trailed her rival by 21 percentage points, a clear indicator that Christie has marred his former ally’s political chances. Additionally, Democratic turnout in the primary, which outnumbered Republicans two-to-one, grimly foreshadowed a shaky path to victory for Republicans. With Phil Murphy’s powerful momentum and Guadagno’s continued difficulty fundraising and appealing to voters, Murphy’s November victory is likely. However, continued indifference from New Jersey voters may well put the election’s results back up into the air. The aforementioned poll found that 44% of surveyed voters do not know enough about Murphy to make an opinion about him, while 49% felt the same way about Guadagno. After last year’s presidential elections, Democrats are wary of celebrating prematurely.
The implications of a Murphy victory would be huge for the Democratic Party. One of the first elections to follow Trump’s presidency, the outcome of the race for governor will send a clear message on how voters feel about the unpopular 45th president. Murphy himself has not shied away from sending a strong message to Donald Trump, repeatedly emphasizing that he will challenge the president on major issues like immigration and climate change. If he wins, Phil Murphy would become another strong Democratic advocate and a champion of the fight against Trump’s policies, potentially even taking on a much-needed leadership role in the party.
Guadagno winning, however unlikely, would send a similar message to the White House. A victory against all odds would make clear that a moderate Republican candidate could still succeed without succumbing to Trump-style GOP politics, weakening the President’s grip on his party.
Either way, the results of this year’s election symbolize two different approaches to mending a New Jersey broken by Chris Christie. Irregardless of who wins, the new leadership in New Jersey will significantly change politics, both in-state and across the nation. Voters must stay informed and prevent apathy from prevailing in this crucial race.
The last day to register to vote in New Jersey is October 17th. The election is on November 7th.