| Nothing has happened thus far to change the dynamic of the New Jersey gubernatorial race. Republican candidate Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno appears headed for a certain landslide defeat by Democratic candidate Phil Murphy.
The Christie-Trump albatross constitutes an insurmountable obstacle to a Guadagno victory, and her unwillingness to repudiate The Donald makes her situation even worse. And she is unlikely to do so, given the fact that her campaign “brain trust” is composed overwhelmingly of Trump 2016 campaign operatives and media supporters. She is, in short, a prisoner of her own campaign’s leadership. The Donald is now an even greater albatross for her than Chris Christie.
The post-election nerve center for the Republican opposition to a Governor Murphy will be the Republican State Senate delegation, under the leadership of Tom Kean, Jr., who is well equipped to be the principle party-in-waiting spokesman. His effectiveness, however, will be strengthened if the Murphy landslide does not result in the loss of any GOP Senate seats.
At present, the Senate is comprised of 24 Democrats and 16 Republicans. In the 7th District (Burlington), veteran Republican Diane Allen is retiring, and Democrat Assemblyman Troy Singleton is certain to pick up her seat.
Thus, assuming the high likelihood that incumbent Republican Senator Kip Bateman will be reelected in District 16 (portions of Hunterdon, Mercer, Middlesex, and Somerset), the major Republican mission in Campaign 2017 is to retain a 16 GOP Senate seat delegation. This goal can be attained by:
1) District 11 (Monmouth) incumbent GOP Senator Jennifer Beck, 50, turning back the challenge of Democratic candidate Vin Gopal, 31; and
2) Republican Assemblyman Chris Brown, 53, capturing the District 2 Senate seat (Atlantic, small portions of Burlington and Ocean) held by the recently deceased Democrat Jim Whelan and now filled on an interim basis by former Atlantic County Democrat freeholder Colin Bell, 34.
In short, the Senate races in Legislative Districts 2 and 11 are the marquee races for the NJGOP this November.
These campaigns have begun in earnest, but one thing is already clear: Both the Republican candidates, Chris Brown and Jennifer Beck have a definite, perhaps decisive advantage due to two common factors: political gravitas and independence.
Political gravitas consists of three elements: 1) personal accomplishments; 2) political achievements; and 3) public service (governmental) record. Political independence can best be defined as one’s demonstrated independence from special interests and party bosses.
When it comes to political gravitas, Chris Brown is right out of central casting.
The three term Assemblyman served with distinction as an Army officer in the 1991 Gulf War, earning a Bronze Star and Combat Infantryman Badge. His legal career has not only been distinguished by a successful private practice but by outstanding service as Galloway Township Municipal Judge as well.
As an Assemblyman, the same accomplishments that gave Chris Brown political gravitas credentials also demonstrated his political independence as well.
Most notable in this regard was his successful leadership of the campaign to defeat the 2016 ballot question to expand casino gambling beyond Atlantic City.
Brown developed an excellent relationship with the New Jersey African-American community, a rarity for a Republican in the era of Trump. This won him praise from African-American Democrat State Senator from Newark, Ron Rice.
Brown often opposed the Christie administration on significant measures. Most significant in this regard were 1) the Fiscal Year 2018 budget, where he supported the budget sponsored by Democrat Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto; and 2) the effort of Christie and the South Jersey Democrats to pass legislation enabling the state to raid the Horizon BCBS reserves and enable outside forces to take over its board.
Bell does not come close to matching Brown in terms of political gravitas and independence. He is a man with noteworthy accomplishments for his age, including service as Atlantic County Assistant Prosecutor and a three-year term on the Atlantic County Freeholder Board. Normally, this would qualify him to run for a legislative seat against an undistinguished opponent.
Chris Brown, however, is a heavyweight. He is running for a Senate seat that has for decades been held by political heavyweights of massive political gravitas, including such luminaries as Hap Farley, Steve Perskie, Bill Gormley, and Jim Whelan. Bell does not yet nearly qualify for that class.
In fact, it is Bill Gormley whom Chris Brown resembles the most of previous District 2 Senators, not in terms of personality but more in terms of unquestionable integrity and competence. Brown starts this race with a substantial lead over Bell, and while the race is not yet locked up, it will be most difficult for Colin Bell to overcome the political gravitas and independence gaps.
The political gravitas and independence factors are also working in favor of Jennifer Beck in District 11, where she faces a most formidable challenge from Vin Gopal. He is a remarkable young man in terms of substantial business and local civic accomplishment. In the political realm, he has achieved significant and rapid success as Chair of the Monmouth County Democratic Party, particularly in 2015, when under his leadership, the Democrats won both 11th District Assembly seats.
Gopal, however, does not yet have a record of government service, and accordingly, he has not yet had the opportunity to demonstrate political gravitas and independence. If elected, he may well do so. He has a first-rate political mind, and as shown by his proposal in this campaign for municipal consolidations, he has an excellent ability to comprehend complex issues and develop innovative solutions, regardless of whether or not one agrees with him.
The problem for Gopal, however, is that he is running against Jennifer Beck. Over a period of twelve years, two in the Assembly and ten in the Senate, she has compiled a record of impactful participation in major legislative committees, including Budget and Appropriations, which also enabled her to obtain a remarkably comprehensive knowledge of New Jersey issues.
Yet it was in the most recent legislative sessions, during the period of the state government shutdown, where Senator Beck most graphically demonstrated political gravitas and independence. I wrote about this in my InsiderNJ column of July 5, 2017, “Shutdown Aftermath – The Republican Winner: Jennifer Beck” as to her courageous defiance of the forces of Chris Christie and George Norcross on the Horizon BCBS battle and her role in the victory against their proposal.
Most relevant, in the current political context, Jennifer Beck has courageously repudiated the racially and ethnically offensive conduct of Donald Trump. Her statement condemning the President’s deplorable conduct regarding Charlottesville was clear and unequivocal: “There are no ‘very fine’ Nazis or KKK members.” This stands in sharp contrast to the deeply disappointing silence of Kim Guadagno on Trump’s Charlottesville outrage.
Beck is currently viewed as having a lead over Gopal, but not as substantial as the lead of Chris Brown over Colin Bell. There is, however, a significant common aspect to the fundraising activity on behalf of Bell and Gopal that may strengthen the political independence factor working on behalf of Beck and Brown.
A political Super Pac backed by George Norcross and financed by special interest groups is expected to make major independent expenditures on behalf of the candidacies of Colin Bell and Vin Gopal. The Super Pac activities will, by law, not be coordinated with the candidates’ campaigns, but there will almost certainly be a flood of television commercials on behalf of the candidates within ten days prior to the election.
There is a negative factor for the Bell and Gopal campaigns from the Super Pac activities as well. In all fairness, neither Bell nor Gopal has asked for the Super Pac participation in the campaign. Yet its participation will enable Beck and Brown to claim that the Super Pac’s participation results in Bell and Gopal being indebted to Norcross and his allied special interests – a vivid contrast to the proven political independence of Beck and Brown.
All this leaves open the question as to how badly will the Murphy landslide impact the Beck and Brown campaigns. I suspect that the negative impact will be less damaging to them, given that 1) Guadagno lives in Monmouth County, resulting in the Murphy margin there being a lesser percentage than in many other areas; and 2) Party gubernatorial landslides have usually impacted the losing statewide party less in Atlantic County than other areas of the Garden State.
Indeed, one can foresee the possibility of the InsiderNJ edition of Wednesday, November 7 having the following Winners and Losers: Winners: Phil Murphy, Chris Brown, and Jennifer Beck; Losers: Kim Guadagno and George Norcross!
Alan J. Steinberg served as Regional Administrator of Region 2 EPA during the administration of former President George W. Bush and as Executive Director of the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission under former New Jersey Governor Christie Whitman.