Examining the 2017 Gubernatorial Primaries with InsiderNJ: Republicans and Democrats


Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno had a problem called Chris Christie.

It’s the atmospheric alternation in the room whenever she’s around: that Christie association that she simply can’t shake.

It’s so in tensely sulphuric that one almost suspects that Christie – apparently publicly intent on humiliating and undercutting his LG at every turn – actually likes her and knows the only favor he can do for her at this point is to act like he detests her. One can almost hear the Christie spinmeister making the case for the governor adoring his LG and acting out of selfless regard for party and partner. “He’s that good.” The trouble is that those people are not making such cases anymore. It’s too late in the game. They’ve moved on. They’re gone. And they have concluded, moreover, that no one can convincingly make the case that Christie would put party – let alone another person – above his own personal agenda and ambitions.

So the double edge of Christie’s tanked job approval ratings and disdain cut cruelly into Guadagno’s campaign.

But nonetheless she tries. She exhibits considerable high spirits. She trudges forward as the good soldier. She does all those little things that a good candidate does: the gestures, the inflections, the projection of confidence, the transmission of goodwill.

She has her own story to tell, this former prosecutor who broke down corrupt Republican Somerset County  Prosecutor Nick Bissel, who would go on to eat a gun in a Las vegas motel room.

But the story’s overshadowed now the Christie years, so Guadagno moves around the state, testing out a voice that for many rings with the hollow tones of the Christie years, or canned with the overreach of attempting to put a gulf between herself and the governor. She opposed Christie’s gas tax for estate tax swap to fix the state Transportation Trust Fund (TTF). One significant differentiation in seven plus years? It’s too late in the game, mutter the LG’s detractors, and hampered by her own obvious need to separate from the toxicity of Christie. Dammit, she opposes the multi-million overhaul of the Golden Dome. fine. But again, late. Even her attempt at an adhesion to President Donald J. Trump carries the unfortunate attachment of Christie and worse, an outright Bridgegate association. When asked in Middlesex last week about her failure to endorse the Republican nominee for president in last year’s presidential election, Guadagno said her former political adviser actually works for Trump. That would be Bill Stepien, who also served as Christie’s campaign manager during that period of time that later became known as Bridgegate. In other words, it’s not exactly an invocation that produces a positive reaction among a Christie-hating electorate.

But it is not all negative for Guadagno.

Not at all.

She remains the front-runner for the nomination.

She introduced a big idea into the race, namely a proposal to have New Jersey elect an attorney general rather than merely depend on  a powerful governor appointing one. She has her own aforementioned story.

She excels at one on one communication, and it is precisely there that she has built valuable relationships. While Christie barnstormed New Hampshire and sweated the details of pig crates and guns in his unswerving effort to appeal to national-sized Republican Primary voters, Guadagno became the champion of rubber chickens, pinewood derbies, bingo halls, toy for tot drives, chamber of commerce clutches, and every agonizing ribbon cutting event a football stadium private box ensconced Christie probably high-fived a staffer for not having to attend. Someone told the LG to brand herself on some guy from Union City, a Democrat and a wild man named Brian P. Stack, and she began handing out her cellphone number. It was effective. It used to be that when you thought of politician and cell phone, Stack came immediately to mind. Now Guadagno has horned in on that and made it her own  in Republican circles. If Christie was a national political celebrity, Kim was accessible.

She nailed some big counties early. She pulled down Ocean. She pulled in Monmouth. That’s a big chunk of the primary vote right there. While her opponent’s campaign attempted to cover itself with the fig leaf of Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli’s home county alone, Guadagno looked to be fighting the contest away, with chip away wins in Camden, Cape May, Cumberland, Hudson, Passaic, Salem and Warren counties. She was also recommended by the Bergen County Republican Organization’s Policy Committee to receive the county organization’s endorsement, scheduled for Thursday.

But then Ciattarelli won Mercer and simultaneously looked to have the advantage in Middlesex (scheduled for Saturday) and took Burlington. Tonight, he appears to have the upper-hand in Union. Big Mo was swinging away from the LG and to Ciattaarelli, who still suffered significant impediments when  it came to name ID (he consistently polled a distant third in the contest behind comedian Joe Piscopo, who wasn’t even going to run as a Republican if indeed he ran).

To those who backed him, Ciattarelli had one huge selling point: he had nothing to do with Christie.

Okay, he was a Republican.

But he wasn’t lieutenant governor.

Ciattarelli gave the party a chance to go in a different direction.

“It is obscene to me after seven and a half years that our state party is broke,” shouted Ciattarelli at Monday night’s Burlington  County Convention, moments after winning the line, promising to lead a grassroots effort to rebuild the party statewide.

If elected, Ciatttarelli – a CPA and small business owner – says he wants schools funding reform to phase out the Abbot district program in which 31 school districts gobble up 70% of the total state education aid allocation. He would require that New Jersey no longer provide post-retirement healthcare if an individual’s pension and Social Security exceeds $50,000 a year. He favors a 401k plan for public employees with less than 10 years in the system and new hires, and would yank the plug on “Cadillac” health insurance plans. He would abolish the estate and transfer inheritance tax, increase the retirement income exclusion and allow for the carry forward of capital losses, and spearhead a 10-year phase-out of the corporate business tax.

Likeable and respected in his caucus and in both parties, Ciattarelli nonetheless lacked the reservoir of relationships possessed by Guadagno. At his worst, lacking the time to truly build connections with party delegates on the convention trail, he was the guy with the Italian last name and a winning smile. It wasn’t enough. Kim had been there. Okay, so she wasn’t the greatest speaker in the world,  but again she’s accessible. She’s simply relentlessly accessible. Well, wait a minute, not really, ran the inevitable inner barometer of political second guessing. She’s been there, sure, but until recently she never actually said anything, and… and these have been turbulent times. How could she not have had an opinion on… But that’s not relevant here in the horse race, right?

It is relevant, argue landscaper Joseph Rudy Rullo and Nutley Commissioner Steve Rogers.

And so is Ciattarelli’s raging moderate status, they would add for good measure.

“Silent Kim” is Rullo’s name for Guadagno as he argues the essential worthlessness of the GOP lines in an attempt to package himself as the guy whose chief virtue is not to have the encumbrance of Guadagno’s establishment connections.

Rullo gives his stump speech to party committee people. But he knows he has no shot at the lines.

Still, he does not lose heart.

He remembers Jeff Bell, who shocked the state in 2014 when he won a GOP Senate Primary without any establishment support. A contractor named Brian Goldberg won the Ocean County GOP line that year and a lot of people figured the contest was over, then Bell won, making a very strong case for why Republican establishment lines in this state are not Democratic establishment lines. Then there was the fact that movement conservative Steve Lonegan was two points behind Christie in the 2009 Republican Primary with five weeks to go in the contest before the Chrsitie campaign unloaded, hitting Lonegan hard on his proposed flat tax. Christie would defeat Lonegan handily: 55-42%.

There is a significant segment of New Jersey’s Republican electorate that is so independent and fiercely committed to the second amendment and pro life and conservative values that the Bells and Lonegans always have a shot.

The Bells and Lonegans and Rullos. Right?

Well, Rullo has a problem called Rogers.

The two of them scrap at nearly every public forum, each recognizing that the other stands in his way of being that legitimate alternative to the two state-level elected officials who – let’s face it, they argue – have already had their chances to make their cases and have proved to be less than robustly conservative.

They’re hurting each other so far, or so it would appear.

It’s Guadagno and Ciattarelli fighting on the top tier, and Rullo and Rogers fighting on the second tier.


On the Democratic side there wasn’t much to report really, other than to acknowledge that they see the polls and know they have to just stay on the tracks to claim the governorship this year.

Former federal Treasury Department official Jim Johnson, Assemblyman John Wisniewski, state Senator Ray Lesniak and any other candidates in the race appeared to struggle for traction as former Goldman Sachs executive Phil Murphy slam-dunked county line after county line.

It was like watching Wilt Chamberlain against the seven dwarfs.

Of course, Wisniewski and Johnson didn’t feel that way.

They projected horror at the notion that the Democratic Party would reset behind a Goldman Sachs guy seven and a half years after Christie manhandled Jon Corzine of Goldman Sachs. It seemed cruelly cynical and injurious to even the most basic impulses of party and persuasion to think that the bosses would hand over the state to a guy whose only previous campaign experience was to lose a stock council race in Hong Kong. Wisniewski projected Bernie Sanders disaffection with the system. Having spent a political lifetime exhibiting incredible self control as that patrician-like guardian of those Democratic dens and hives of acid and creosote baths, Wiz now faced the odd challenge of exhibiting outrage. It was like watching Lawrence Olivier cast suddenly as Stanley Kowalski. The trouble for Wiz, according to those with wondering why he was even in the race, was that Hillary Clinton buried Sanders in New Jersey 63-37% in last year’s Democratic Primary.

In the sacred name of balance and keen on giving as much ink to an apparently non-competitive Democratic Primary as to the radioactive Republicans, reporters dutifully summoned every conceivable synonym for the verb to crush as they recorded Murphy’s performance in the convention season.

He buried the field here.

He destroyed there.

He savaged.

He demolished.

He applied a butt kicking and a beat-down.

All in the name of creating what the Republicans, God bless them as they struggled in the aftermath of Christie, apparently can’t: a unified party.

In Morris County last night, 82% of the locally elected Democratic committee members picked Murphy for governor. In Burlington, he received 74% of the vote.

“The growth of the Morris County Democratic party would not have been possible without the support of Phil Murphy, who has been a partner with us every step of the way to victory,” said Chairman Chip Robinson. “We have won local races because of Phil’s support, and we have been able to build a stronger party because he has been our partner. Now, with all the challenges New Jersey faces, and the need for active, engaged leadership, we’re proud to help him become our next governor.”

What dominated the interest of insiders observing the trail more than the xs and os of Murphy’s long ball after long ball touchdown pass in MorrisMercerOceanBurlington – 12 lines in all, to date – was the regional asymmetry of the Democratic party. South Jersey still pushed the rest of the state around, the consequence of its delegation in Trenton having the discipline to stick together, and the reach of its chief boss, George Norcross III, into other counties, to wind party people up and make them do what he wants them to do.

Murphy could become governor, fine.

But as long as Steve Sweeney remains as senate president and Norcross continues to set the agenda, he faces the prospect of not having the full charge of power the governor of New jersey is equipped to possess. To truly not be like Corzine, some Democrats argue, Murphy has to be willing to break up the influence of South Jersey. Corzine’s allies had the votes once to take out Speaker Joe Roberts of South Jersey, and the governor didn’t move. “I don’t want to influence the legislature like that,” Corzine said, and paid the price, as the South and its allies consistently bucked him, most notably on  his doomed signature agenda item: asset monetization.

Murphy backs Sweeney’s reelection. But backing his reelection to the senate is not the same as saying he wants him back on the throne of the senate. Murphy’s staying out of it right now, as key allies make the case for the path of least resistance to the governor’s mansion. They don’t want a fight with South Jersey before it’s necessary.

But is it inevitable?

That is the question.

The northern Democratic Party chairs last year quickly aligned behind Murphy as a display of unwillingness to augment Norcross’ and Sweeney’s power beyond the legislature. Perhaps they will feel their egos sufficiently soothed by the knowledge that murphy will take their phone calls when he gets to Drumthwacket. But if they can’t accomplish a northern agenda, if the minions of Norcross are treated as cogs in  a wheel that ultimately spins South Jersey, then it little serves them to rely on a tandem of Sweeney and – for the sake of argument – Speaker Craig Coughlin of Middlesex.

But who would step up and take on Sweeney and how?

Democratic insiders argue the move must occur in accord with the party’s selection of a successor to sitting U.S. Senator Bob Menendez. If Menendez does not run again, and Norcross makes the play for his fellow Camden-based brother, U.S. Rep. Donald Norcross (D-1) (pictured) to succeed him, the Northern Democrats can withhold their support until Sweeney stands down and a northern ally – a state Senator Nick Scutari or state Senator Joe Vitale – claims the senate presidency.

It’s volatile.

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