Certain of Statewide Victory, NJ Democrats Tumble Into the Abyss of a Raging Intra-Party War

Try as they may to make the Stonewall Jackson groundhog-loving Parker Space the enemy in the 2017 general election campaign season, Democrats deprived of strong opposition in the post Christie era and still nursing all those injuries from the past eight years, have renewed a war with themselves, using Nov. 7th as an Omaha Beach opportunity, reimagined and refashioned as a peninsula and attacked from opposite sides by the same invading, friendly-fire beset forces.

First there’s the New Jersey Education Association’s (NJEA) – usually a sure bet to play on the side of Democrats – blitz to relieve Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-3) of office. Their salvos to take down Sweeney in a district he won by just four points in 2009 (the year he sewed up the senate presidency) have forced the senate president to go into $2 million dollar man mode, more than pinning him down in his district while the likes of LD11 Senate candidate Vin Gopal wade into the thickets of very tough suburban district contests.


It’s not Democrat Phil Murphy v. Republican Kim Guadagno (oh, yeah – them!).

It’s Sweeney v. the NJEA.

Then there’s the ongoing speaker’s war, and of course it’s related to the senate presidency. Everything’s connected.

Backed by South Jersey and a unified Middlesex, with additional support elsewhere, including from a controversially harvested Essex County, Assemblyman Craig Coughlin (D-19) appears publicly confidently assured of becoming the next speaker of the general assembly. But sitting Speaker Vincent Prieto (D-32) refuses to go quietly, and now, having ousted longtime Executive Director Mike Muller, replaced him with Mark Matzen and seized hold of the controls of the Democratic Assembly Campaign Committee (DACC), he sets his sights on a new majority. Democratic gubernatorial candidate Phil Murphy is beating his Republican counterpart by as many as 25 points, according to Quinnipiac. Prieto calculates that if he snow shovels money into LD25, 39 and 40, he could grab six votes, then peel back two or maybe four from wobbly Essex and conquer the South Jersey-Middlesex imperial guard.

The strategy prompts grunts of “Stupid, stupid,” from the speaker’s detractors, even as his longtime allies in North Bergen say with pride, “They brought the Cuban out of my boy.”

Ejected from DACC and now piloting the Senate Majority’s efforts on behalf of the embattled Sweeney, Muller, for his part, continues to keep his focus on LD2, LD11 and LD16 (more on behalf of Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker (D-16) than the top of the ticket, it must be noted). Sources from both factions of the party concede that former Freeholder (and Senator-elect) Colin Bell has a heavy lift on his hands as he attempts to take down Assemblyman Chris Brown (R-2). Brown’s union cred in addition to his record in opposition tot he state takeover make him a strong favorite.

Sweeney’s bitter fight with the NJEA and GN3’s decision to go all in with fundraising for the sitting senate president has South Jersey sending Bell a decidedly “take one for the regional team” message.

It’s not Bell v. Brown so much anymore in LD2 as it is sources in that wing of the party blaming the NJEA for keeping them pinned back in Sweeney country, unable to branch out to other territory. Again, that becomes particularly troubling in LD11, where Gopal wants to pick off state Senator Jennifer Beck (R-11).

The essential irreconcilable nature of the party comes out somewhat too in the candidacy of Murphy, whose tax plan, including designs on raising $1.3 billion in new revenues, coupled with his advocacy of public sector unions, including the NJEA, put him on a collision course with Sweeney and company and suburban Dems, even as he tries to remain above the fray and ultimately solidly in the corner of those urban areas that are the bread and butter base of the Democratic Party.

Can Guadagno capitalize, as Christie did in 2009 when Sweeney made his move on then-Senate President Dick Codey (D-27) and opened up the breach of a still ongoing war? To her credit, she has fought on the tax issue, and fought hard, and made a convincing case for attendant danger signals, and this week the Republican Governors Association rewarded her for her efforts with an ad against Murphy.

But there’s too much going against her.

There’s so much going against her that the Democrats have all but forgotten about her as they kill one another.

Can she sneak in?


There are still 860,000 more Democrats than Republican in New Jersey.

Driven by his own designs on the presidency, Christie ravaged the GOP here.

Moreover, for at least two years Murphy has worked his retail politics to the point of building good personal relationships with party leaders, and has an effervescent enough outsider personality to – for the most part – lift him over the knife fights.

Consider two more dynamics.

The June Democratic Primary saw a greater turnout than any single gubernatorial primary going back to 1981, with anti-Trump and anti-Christie and anti-establishment Democrats super-motivated, in addition to machines like the Stack powerhouse in Union City and an ever-seeking-to-be-relevant Newark North Ward engine engaged a year ahead of the reelection campaign of Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo. We assume the machines will remain engaged. There is buzz in Hudson about a possible future Stack run for the Hudson County Democratic Organization (HCDO) chairmanship to succeed Prieto.

Senator Brian P. Stack wants big numbers.

So does DiVincenzo in neighboring Essex.

But will that progressive wing of the party that opted for Jim Johnson, John Wisniewski, Ray Lesniak and Bill Brennan instead of Phil Murphy, turn out for a ticket headed by a former Goldman Sachs executive? Murphy tacked to the left in the primary, and certainly won the full-fledged support of unions like the NJEA, CWA, and 32BJ SEIU with his promises in the area of minimum wage increases. He’s also vigorously tackled social issues and endorsed the legalization of marijuana. All of it jeopardizes his standing with the conservative wing of the Democratic Party and puts those Dems running in suburban districts warily on guard. Will it be enough to motivate those people who opposed him in the Democratic Primary and drill up respectable general election numbers?

“In the primary I felt more energy,” one source – a Murphy backer – noted to InsiderNJ.

Another fight (and there are many more, unmentioned here) – part of it related to regional divisions – consists of the impassioned and calculated moves-making going on behind the scenes as Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ) fights for his political life in a Newark courtroom. Menendez is up for reelection anyway next year, and whatever happens in his trial, his rivals are beginning to scamper and thrash around and pop out of the ground, appearing more and more frequently, like the heads of prairie dogs – or groundhogs, who don’t, however, answer to the name Stonewall Jackson.


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