Power Rankings: 31 Elected Officials (and/or Candidates) to Watch and Why in the Sprint to Next Tuesday

The New Jersey Statehouse. Senator Doherty's bill unfairly impacts skilled tradesmen, the writer argues.
Menendez
Menendez

Bob Menendez

He doesn’t overshadow the contest, but his corruption case has sapped significant physic energy from the colosseum. If man is a mortal being, and politics, with its endless wars and opportunities for heady gains and humbling losses, a metaphor for mortality, and a courtroom the compressed morality play of a political life, then Menendez clinging to the dreadful day to day of testimony symbolizes the mystifying center of this particular political season. At least from an insider perspective, and certainly from the vantage point of Hudson, the rest of the circus plays out against the backdrop of the senior senator’s drama, which could get decided by Election Day 2017.

Murphy and Jones

Phil Murphy

The front-running Democratic nominee for Governor possesses a sunny disposition and remembers people’s names, but irritated battleground suburban Democrats with his tax hiking $1.3 billion plan and comments about turning New Jersey into a sanctuary state. A Star-Ledger editorial last week only reluctantly backed him, while complaining about his too-generous stance on public sector unions. Most polls show him beating Guadagno by double digits, but few in either party predict the concussive, avalanche win that would purge the Statehouse of Republicans. Insiders continue to question his decision to accept public financing for the general election contest. From the time he won the Democratic Primary with fewer than half the votes of the Democratic electorate, Murphy has faced an unanswered question. Will those anti-establishment Democrats who voted against him in favor of John Wisniewski and Jim Johnson come out and vote for him on Nov. 7th? By the looks of his late ads, Murphy is counting on Christie agony to propel people to the polls, but will progressives infuriated by President Donald J. Trump show up in favor of a retired Goldman Sachs banker? Big question with a little more than a week to go.

Sweeney
Sweeney

Steve Sweeney

The 3rd District Senate President has the Building Trades and George Norcross on his side as he attempts to beat down his two chief political enemies: the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) and Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean, Jr. (R-21) in the most expensive contest in New Jersey Legislative history. Bothered by North Jersey’s support for Murphy, and Murphy’s apparent close relations to the NJEA and those public pension champions from labor who despise his proximity to Christie and now want to do to him what they could never do to Christie, Sweeney wants to look ripped in time for a return to the Statehouse. If he limps in with a single digit, skin of his teeth victory, he might embolden a caucus that has new reason to show solidarity with the sitting governor. But if Sweeney stomps on the NJEA and Kean in his South Jersey home district, and Murphy staggers in with a less than impressive win against Guadagno, of all people, Sweeney can convincingly play the bully on the playground role when the new kid arrives in Trenton.

Christie. Mike Stobe: Getty Images.

Chris Christie

Desperate to re-inflate his dreadful public image, the Governor of New Jersey has bike pumped an opioid ad campaign for weeks, only to find his worst moments reinvigorated by Phil Murphy for Governor. Murphy front-end-loaded Bridgegate as part of his closing argument, welding opponent Kim Guadagno to the mess, while delighting Democratic audiences with a stump speech that pokes fun at Christie for going to the beach during the state government shutdown. Most insiders sense a flat political atmosphere. But do people so revile the lame duck sitting Governor that they will express their rage and disgust by interrupting busy personal schedules to go out and vote for Phil Murphy?

Team Stack.

Brian P. Stack

The Murphy Campaign wanted a late rally in Union City, but the powerful Union City Mayor (on the ballot on Nov. 7th as a state senator seeking reelection) gave him the option of a cameo at a Stack Civic Association event this past Friday. Murphy showed up, only too happy to stand in front of a packed ballroom at Schuetzen Park where the learned behavior from years of “Viva Brian” theatrics dovetailed perfectly with the gubernatorial candidate’s immediate campaign and elections needs. No one like Stack can transmit a mood of political passion – even if the rest of the state has a flat as a pancake feel in advance of the election. Eager to transition from Christie to Murphy, Stack has motivation to equal (or top!) his primary election result of 20,000 votes to demonstrate to the governor-elect the priority of resources for Union City.

Oliver

Sheila Oliver

Since Murphy picked her over Assemblywoman Shavonda Sumter (D-35), insiders have tried to decipher a deeper why. But it isn’t complicated. Oliver hails from Essex County, ground zero for the most Democratic Party votes of any county in New Jersey. Her hometown is East Orange, the hometown city of powerful Essex County Democratic Committee Chairman Leroy Jones, and one of the most politically muscled local organizations in the state. Murphy wants to run up the score in North Jersey and will depend on Speaker Emerita Oliver. Sources say Oliver wants to head the Department of Community Affairs, which would give Essex County a powerful ally in a key government seat once the new regime takes charge. But others will want that position too, which means Oliver and Essex must deliver a convincing victory that propels Murphy to power.

Coughlin
Coughlin

Craig Coughlin

We don’t know who’s running against Assemblyman Craig Coughlin (D-19) this year. But we do know that Coughlin is running against Speaker Vincent Prieto. The mild-mannered assemblyman from Woodbridge had a fundraiser last week that morphed into the happening of the season, with a guest list heavy on Middlesex and Essex County. The combination of those two behemoths in the same room, with chairs Kevin McCabe and Leroy Jones contributing yin and yang optics as their respective courts flowed in behind them and swelled the room, had more than two or three sources commenting on what would happen if Essex and Middlesex ever aligned in a true political fistfight. “If I were from South Jersey, I’d be keeping an eye on those guys,” said a source. “There weren’t any South Jersey people there, by the way, or anyway very few.” Maybe it was by design. Just as Sheila Oliver and then Prieto as speaker placated the north in order to repair Sweeney to the more commanding senate presidency, Coughlin is the South’s latest cannon fodder to keep the counties north I-195 at tripping over themselves while Sweeney remains installed on the imperial upper house throne. What we’re paying attention to with Coughlin are LD2, LD11 and LD16. If Democrats win in those battlegrounds, or at least win four of those seats, and if Sweeney holds off Fran Grenier and the NJEA in LD3, Coughlin can begin typing his reorganization War Memorial Speaker’s Speech on Election Night. But if Democrats lose in those districts he may go down in history as the guy who might have been the next Sheila Oliver and the next Vinny Prieto but for a rupture in the machine.

Prieto
Prieto

Vincent Prieto

Assemblyman John McKeon and Assemblywoman Mila Jasey showing up at Coughlin’s fundraiser last week had to have hurt. Those two LD27 legislators were supposed to be soft Prieto backers despite the appearance of their names in a press release backing Coughlin for the speakership. It’s over, or so it appears. But. If Speaker Vincent Prieto (D-32) can pull out a seat or two as a result of his gamble in LD39 and LD25 – while Coughlin backers in LD2, LD11 and LD16 lose – maybe he will be able to make the case that he should stick round as speaker. Few believe that will happen, seeing longer odds on Democrats winning in the former than in the latter. But if Sweeney loses, Prieto may feel obliged to plant an Iwo Jima-sized flag on the steps of the Statehouse. “Blah,” a source told InsiderNJ last week. “People should know when they’re conquered.”

Would Murphy stick his neck out for Codey in a leadership fight?

Dick Codey

His old detractors in South Jersey may not like the newfound spring in the LD27 Democratic Senator’s step now that Phil Murphy appears headed for Drumthwacket. But consider this: when Codey was acting governor in 2005, he appointed Murphy to chair the New Jersey Benefits Task Force. There’s no one else in New Jersey politics who appears to have a political relationship with Murphy that stretches back to encompass the length of time that Codey has with him. It’s a real relationship, and that bodes well for Codey, who will no doubt reanimate once Murphy become governor and will have a chance to re-expand his influence.

Grenier
Grenier

Fran Grenier

David was a kid with a sack of polished stones when he finished off Goliath in The Bible. That’s probably the preferred narrative of Grenier’s friends as the factory worker and former chairman of the Salem County GOP tries to take down Senate President Sweeney in the most expensive legislative contest of all time. In the earliest days of the developing LD3 drama, when InsiderNJ first broke the stories about Kean sitting down with NJEA reps and plotting a move on the senate president, the question always boiled down to who was going to run. Most insiders saw a better opportunity for the pound-of-flesh-seeking teachers’ union in a Democratic Primary, but that never transpired. So their multi-million anti-Sweeney effort fell to Grenier, whose candidacy InsiderNJ first reported on the day he filed his paperwork in Trenton. Does he have a chance against Sweeney? One insider – a Sweeney friend – insisted he does. “Sweeney may have neglected his district to run for governor the same way Christie neglected his district to run for president. I’m worried.” But most Sweeney allies, aren’t, anticipating a tough election, certainly, but one they like in part because they don’t see Grenier as a big threat.

GOP Leaders
Kean and Bramnick.

Tom Kean, Jr.

Short of unhorsing Sweeney with Grenier, in the best of circumstances Kean appears to be headed back to Trenton without much of a story to tell. He picks up LD2, but then loses LD7, where Diana Allen is retiring. So it’s a wash. He could lose Jen Beck in LD11, but let’s say he wins. He goes back to the minority with 16 seats, which I what he has now. But give to this Kean. In a year when many (or let’s say some) Republicans have given up and already made preparations for a Murphy governorship and Sweeney senate presidency, the Senate Republican leader keeps trying. He sees an opportunity in LD14 and LD38, where he continues to play. A great night for Kean would be a Sweeney dethroning, and incredible upsets in LD14 and LD38, but it doesn’t feel or look that way. We’re guessing he trudges back to the Statehouse with 15 other GOP members behind him. But if he loses Beck, and shows up on reorganization day looking at just 14 caucus members, might someone decide to make a move on him?

Guadagno
Guadagno

Kim Guadagno

Saddled with super-unpopular Chris Christie, the Republican nominee for Governor has exceeded expectations as a top of the ticket contender, but has not been able to transfer insider perceptions to public polling. She cornered the taxes issues in this contest, outflanking Murphy early by branding him as the tax-hiker in the race, even as she refuses to say how she will pay for her own circuit-breaking tax savings proposal. Once dismissed as a disaster, Guadagno has impressed fellow party members with her pluck and competitiveness. “She’s a good gubernatorial candidate,” veteran state Senator Mike Doherty (R-23) told InsiderNJ. “I would just like her to talk a little more about the school funding formula, and the unjust and corrupt way it is now applied, which is so punishing to non-Abbott School districts.” Critics say she overreached on her sanctuary cities ad, misreading the NJ electorate by making too hard right a turn, and potentially creating passion in Latino communities. But the bottom line with Guadagno is she has not embarrassed herself in the general election; and while down ballot Democrats in swing districts groan about Murphy, GOP leaders almost universally expresses pleasant surprise when InsiderNJ pokes them about their nominee for Governor. Are the egos on this list bunched together in front of her, elbowing and tripping to the point of enabling a late Guadagno sprint into the pole position? Unlikely. But it can’t be ruled out in weird weather where turnout will decide everything.

Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo.

Joe DiVincenzo

Stack looks so engaged over in Hudson County that the Essex County executive has to put some big numbers up of his own so as not to appear unengaged in a gubernatorial election year, ahead of his own 2018 reelection. Jones will have East Orange in SWAT mode, leaving Joe D.  (and Chief of Staff Phil Alagia) to engage the Newark North Ward Center base to prove big numbers for Murphy.

Jen Beck

Assisted by the fact that Sweeney has spent the cycle pinned down in his district, dragging GN3 money with him, Senator Jennifer Beck (R-11) has a chance here to survive and reassert herself as one of the leaders of the post-Christie Republican Party. If she beats Democrat Vin Gopal in this dreadful GOP terrain, she immediately vaults into a statewide conversation. Republicans who like Beck love Phil Murphy, convinced his message of higher taxes and sanctuary cities kill Gopal’s chances in a mostly suburban district.

Chris Brown

The Republican Assemblyman from the 2nd District faces a tough fight for the state senate in LD2. Sweeney kicked Senator Colin Bell some cash last week to deal with Brown, but it’s going to be very tough for the Democrats to maintain control of the senate seat. South Jersey sources insist Bell has a real shot, but the labor-endorsed Brown carved out a great, people-power political vantage point with his opposition to Northern gaming and Atlantic City takeover. He’s a very tough out.

Colin Bell

Bell may end up getting the Luther Strange Award in InsiderNJ’s 2017 retrospective issue next month, his noble service in the senate confined to a loss of the seat. South Jersey’s playing to keep him in there, though, partly as a way to amplify Sweeney’s regional voice in LD2.

Don Guardian

Elected mayor of Atlantic City in 2013, Republican Guardian may have simply been the beneficiary of a weak year for Dems coupled with an absolutely complacent Mayor Lorenzo Langford. Facing Ward Councilman Frank Gilliam, Guardian has defined himself as an anti-northern gaming and anti-state takeover city protector, scorning the role of tool for either Christie or GN3 gaming cronies. Will it matter in the end? The Murphy Campaign is apparently playing in Atlantic City, trying to reassert a D brand in there even if it means empowering a South Jersey Dems ally in the process. If Guardian wins in this weather, just like Brown and Beck, he’d have to be seen as an enduring star, who should be able to parlay his success into bigger things. Congress when LoBo retires?

Vin Gopal

He’s one of the few people in New Jersey politics who can be called a star: a relationships building animal who excels at politics as well as policy. This was not the cycle he deserved. Think about this. In 2015, the Democratic Party united in L11 to relieve Assemblywomen Caroline Casagrande and Mary Pat Angelini of their seats. Vincent Prieto and DACC, the NJEA, and GN3 all force-fed money to the Democratic challengers. Now all those groups are at war with one another and the money insiders thought would be at Gopal’s fingertips has yet to materialize. Making matters worse is Murphy, whose tax and sanctuary city messaging may have chilled suburban voters in Monmouth County-based LD11 where Gopal hopes to knock off Senator Jennifer Beck. But if Gopal, who built real local infrastructure as the Monmouth County Democratic Chairman, can get through those obstacles, he will have truly arrived as that young superstar who routinely wows those who know him and support him.

Jon Bramnick

Much like Sweeney in LD3, but without quite the hoopla or money at stake, the 21st District Republican Leader of the Assembly has quietly fallen back to Westfield to defend his seat with as much as $250,000 in rough Republican weather, producing one of the more memorable ads of the cycle with his granddaughter. Keep an eye on Union County. Democrats appear confident there of gains, and are playing hard for the mayoralty in Bramnick’s (and Tom Kean’s hometown).

Carlos Rendo

Latinos in this state are a divided community, just as labor is divided. Talk to a Puerto Rican sometime off the record about Cubans (pop. 83,000 in New Jersey) and you’ll get an earful, the same way an ironworker will give you an earful about public sector workers. Rendo is Cuban American, a group within the construct of Hispanic groups that is notoriously loyal, possessed of a fortress mentality that bridges and crushes the feeble and often superficial two-party divides of American politics. Might the Woodcliff Lakes Mayor’s presence on the Guadagno for Governor ticket contribute sufficient numbers of Cuban Americans to make a significant contribution in a low-turnout election? Rendo is not a concocted candidate by any means. He has roots in Hudson County, relationships with people on both sides of the aisle, and the potential to pull Cuban voters who feel depressed about what’s happening with Menendez and still nurse Republican titillations going back to Tom Kean, Sr.

Ravi Bhalla

Running for Mayor of Hoboken, he must cohere that portion of the Dawn Zimmer base that likes the direction of government over the course of her eight years in office. As part of that effort, Bhalla has repeatedly remined voters of Council President Jen Giattino’s Republican Party affiliation. In his latest mailer, Bhalla pointed out that his Republican rival has been silent while President Donald J. Trump has festooned his twitter account with nonsense.

Jen Giattino

If every Republican in Hoboken comes out to vote in the November election, Giattino might have enough to win the mayoralty in a no-runoff, winner-take-all election with six candidates in the race.

Mike DeFusco

The visionary in the race has somewhat contradicted his candidacy by going on attack throughout, And yet, it is Hudson County, after all, despite the thin Hoboken membrane of sophistication. No one knows what’s going to happen in the end, and DeFusco – who possesses a little something of everything that together make up arguably the perfect candidate for the mile-square burgh – stands as good a chance as anyone.

Anthony Romano

Ah, Stick. That’s his nickname. The Washington Street campaign headquarters under the command of Pablo Fonseca resembles a Marine Corps barracks. If the mayoral election in Hoboken comes down to GOTV, the Hudson Freeholder with arguably the only coherent base unmuddied by a rival in the contest who occupies the same space, can win.

Anibal Ramos, Jr.

The Newark North Ward Councilman heads up GOTV operations for the organization ultimately overlorded by Joe D. Stack will go nuts in Hudson County, driving the chariot of his effort like Phaeton of ancient mythology. That will leave Ramos to try to put up respectable numbers out of Newark that will find their way into Murphy’s hands come budget time when Murphy must ascertain who gets the goods.

Donald J. Trump

Nose-diving into the worst job approval ratings of his presidency, Trump may wake up on the morning of Election Day and tweet out the most hateful and sublimely idiotic 3 a.m. observations of his life, thereby annihilating any hunger by respectable Republicans to get to the polls and giving a giant kick in the behinds of Democrats who right now appear to be having – in droves – Hamlet-like conversations with themselves about whether or not to vote on Election Day. InsiderNJ just got off the phone with an ironworker who said the following, “I don’t want to vote for another guy from Goldman Sachs. Then again, that Goldman building did put a lot of us to work. I don’t know. I don’t know.”

Robert Auth

Every cycle extracts the political carcass of someone who looked fine when the cycle started, and less like a casualty than an enduring fixture. But Democrats affiliated with Vincent Prieto are convinced they have the number of the LD39 Republican Assemblyman, who will be this year’s version of Angelini and Casagrande. Of course, Auth sees it differently, and so do the allies of Assemblyman Craig Coughlin (D-19).

Kip Bateman

His pals in LD16 will have a friendly stool at Verve waiting for the veteran GOP senator if he breaks down Democratic challenger Laurie Poppe.

Ras Baraka

The Mayor of Newark will want a respectable showing out of Brick City, and some strong numbers out of the south so as not to give the upper hand to his pal, Ramos.

Andrew Zwicker

Hampered perhaps by his adoration of Princeton, the 16th District Assemblyman wants to hang on and remain the smartest man in the legislator. It’s a very tough district, one that he won in 2015 by fewer than 100 votes.

Donna Simon

Running with fellow Republican Somerset County Freeholder Mark Caliguire on a Kip Bateman ticket, the former Assemblywoman is looking to get back to Trenton by taking out Zwicker’s running mate in the 16th District.

Honorable Mentions:

Eric Houghtaling

Joann Downey

Frank Gilliam

Nick Scutari

Eliana Pintor Marin

Steve Fulop

Brendan Gill

Linda Greenstein

Robert Gordon

Tom Lankey

Keith Hahn

Nick Sacco

Kelly Langschultz

John Wisniewski and Jim Johnson*

Ileana Schirmer

Cory Booker**

Holly Schepisi

Brian Levine

Shanel Robinson

 

*They’re not on the ballot anymore, but how their supporters perform may say something significant about this general election cycle.

**Look for him late as a campaign trail presence alongside Sweeney.

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