Vortexing the Murphy-Norcross Theaters of NJ Politics

A War for New Jersey: Governor Phil Murphy, left, and South Jersey Democratic Party Power Broker George Norcross III.
Sweeney in LD1
Sweeney campaigning last month in Wildwood with Senator Robert Andrzejczak (center) and Assemblyman R. Bruce Land (left) and Assemblyman Matt Milam of LD1.

 

It’s an instinct as old as Gaugamela and older, to don helmet and something intended to slash or serrate on horseback and carve out a name for oneself on the field of battle. Deprived of that, we have the civilizing combat of politics, and absent that, we have New Jersey politics, where a dominant Democratic Party lays waste to itself, in the name of buttressing the interfacing, antagonizing fortresses of Governor Phil Murphy and South Jersey Power Broker George Norcross III.

As he heads toward the denouement next month, Murphy can hardly feel euphoric at the prospect of Democrats in the legislature (with a 26-13 advantage in the senate, and 54-26 advantage in the assembly) gaining seats so they can oppose him the next time he seeks a millionaire’s tax. For this reason, it is hard to picture him onstage, or even welcome onstage to stand with those Democrats so obviously recruited – and funded by a General Majority PAC connected to Norcross – in part to buck his agenda and keep him terminally off balance. Attached to a state tax incentive program that benefited his business interests reviled by Murphy and now under investigation by the state attorney general and the FBI, Norcross must take little joy at the prospect of Murphy trying to wrap himself in the wins of Democrats in districts prioritized by the PAC.

On a jagged field where most general election incumbents are protected by gerrymandered districts*, Democrats in particular augmented by registration advantages, demographic shifts in their favor, and the unpopularity here of Republican President Donald J. Trump (whose job approval rating amid impeachment crisis, however, remain stable, according to today’s Monmouth University poll), the question is how do these competing forces from the same party – when their interests are obviously so at odds – claim victory on Election Night, Nov. 5th – and revel in any sign of weakness by his party rival?

In addition, where and how do some of the other players – the lieutenant colonels and field commanders – fit into the schemes and strategies of the two party warlords, one elected and one unelected?

Dr. Brigid Harrison, professor of political science at Montclair University.
Dr. Brigid Harrison, professor of political science at Montclair University.

“I don’t know that there’s a ton at stake for either Murphy or Norcross,” Montclair University Political Science Prof. Dr. Brigid Harrison told InsiderNJ. “I’m seeing four competitive races on the Democratic side and four on the Republican side. But are Joe and Jane going to the ballot box supporting one candidate or the other based on Norcross or Murphy. Probably not. And I don’t see any power shift in the legislature on the other side of the election. Everyone will be more focused on 2021 [Murphy’s reelection year]”

Agreed.

All true.

But endzone dances still get crazy come garbage time.

First, let’s start with Norcross.

Senator Robert Andrzejczak (D-1)
Senator Robert Andrzejczak (D-1)

The boss’s domain, shared in an official capacity by Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-3) most properly encompasses South Jersey, which puts Senator Robert Andrzejczak (D-1) and his team, otherwise known as The Van Drew Team, in the most forward position to protect the kingdom.

An Andrzejczak loss to Cumberland County GOP Chairman Michael J. Testa would be humiliating for Norcross and Sweeney, which is why they continue to concentrate considerable resources on this naturally Republican district. Norcross’ PAC is also playing hard in LD8 behind the candidacies of Democratic attorneys Gina LaPlaca and Mark Natale. But it’s LD1, with senatorial courtesy in the balance and a key member of Sweeney’s caucus on the line, where GN3 must make his most important stand. In is first ad (just below), Trump Republican Testa tries to tie Andrzejczak to Murphy in the Republican district, but over the weekend Trump tweeted gratitude to U.S. Rep. Jeff Van Drew (D-2) for opposing the president’s impeachment. The favorite battleground legislative team of Mar-a-Lago club member Norcross happens to be running under the banner The Van Drew Team, led by war Andrzejczak.

Most legislators sat out last week’s Democratic State Committee in Atlantic City out of boredom, using the fight between Murphy and Norcross as an excuse to stay out of the crossfire. But those Democrats running in battleground districts, Andrzejczak and his team and the LD8 Democrats chief among them, stayed home to remain focused on their districts, while seizing on a chance to express silent scorn of the progressive wing of the party led by Murphy and featuring an impeachment-consumed main act: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. With Norcross and Sweeney still dominating the Trenton inside game, no one interested in staying afloat at that power channel wanted to appear to be supplying Murphy or Democratic State Party Chairman John Currie with a body to make the place look more packed.

So when we consider Murphy, and what’s at stake for him on Nov. 5th, we should start with who was there in Atlantic City, and specifically who was there in a highly public capacity.

Currie (who serves as chairman of the Passaic County Democratic Party in addition to sitting on the party’s statewide throne) organized the event, and U.S. Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-9) dutifully showed up and participated despite some past bickering with both Currie and Pelosi. But the two frenemies from Passaic County stand astride a Democratic County on virtual lock down.

Somerset County Democratic Committee Chair (and Democratic State Party Vice Chair) Peg Schaffer at the podium to launch the conference in Atlantic City last week.
Somerset County Democratic Committee Chair (and Democratic State Party Vice Chair) Peg Schaffer at the podium to launch the conference in Atlantic City last week.

Somerset County Democratic Chair Peg Schaffer, however, newly installed as the vice chair of a party

Marano
The govenror’s hopes for an obvious win hang on the shoulders of former Green Brook Mayor Melonie Marano.

organization run by Murphy ally Currie in the middle of an ongoing political war with South Jersey, occupies one of the state’s battleground territories where party control is at stake.

Schaffer kicked off the party conference.

She oversaw training sessions.

She helmed a panel with congressmen discussing the implications of impeachment.

She was everywhere.

It was a big moment for Schaffer, and for long-suffering Somerset Democrats, salivating for power, for whom Murphy (and U.S. Rep. Tom Malinowski) are fellow suburban progressive allies and seemingly fellow independent (from the South Jersey nexus) Democrats.

Walsh
Incumbent Somerset County Freeholder Pat Walsh, playing defense for the GOP.

A day after the conference ended, Murphy made two stops (at least to the knowledge of InsiderNJ).

He went up to Passaic for a pro forma meet and greet and ring-kissing theatrical exercise with Currie and Pascrell.

And he went to Somerville, the county seat of Schaffer’s home.

In self protection mode with county power on the line, the GOP hit Schaffer Democrats for their association with Murphy here.

If Schaffer’s candidate, former Green Brook Mayor Melonie Marano, knocks off incumbent Republican Freeholder Pat Walsh on Election Day, expect Murphy to materialize onstage with the freeholder-elect who will finally make Schaffer – chair for more than a decade – the George Norcross of Somerset County.

That’s the front line this year of Murphy’s political ground game.

Not the legislative seats.

But a single county seat that swings a suburban battleground into his (nice guy) clutches.

Somerset Flashpoint: Danielsen with Coughlin and Murphy, at the assemblyman’s event for countywide candidates held at the Villagers Theater in Franklin Township. The event was filled to capacity with over 212 people, and included Democratic Committee people from three different counties, donors and business owners. After dinner, Michael Amante and Marissa Famiglietti performed their best duet of classics, including Nessun Dorma and Time to Say Goodbye.

 

Assemblyman Joe Danielsen (D-17) brought him in for a Franklin Twp. fundraiser.

Also in attendance?

Coughlin, also just in from Atlantic City on Saturday.

“I am not going to let this election year pass without becoming uniquely involved,” said the all-in Danielsen. “This election cycle needs a tipping point.

“And I am that tipping point,” added the resident of Franklin, ground zero for Democratic Party turnout in Somerset.

There are other Murphy options, of course, but none with the symbolic potential of a Democratic Party

Former EPA Regional Administrator Alan J. Steinberg questions whether any member of the NJ GOP will denounce the racism in President Donald Trump's tweet stating that four newly elected Congresswomen should “go back where they came from.”
Trump’s golf course in Somerset makes the control election a natural for Murphy to plunge into, even as the GOP will try to make the Democrats look too liberal (in part owing to their association with the governor) for the county of Millicent Fenwick.

win in the county that houses Donald J. Trump’s New Jersey-based golf course in Schaffer’s hometown of Bedminster. Although the GOP will assert the Marano-Muphy connection to scare moderate voters here, a Marano loss this year to tough-out Walsh would not diminish Schaffer’s potential next year (with two seats up on a five-member freeholder board) to seize control in a high turnout election year.

In other theaters (none for Murphy that bear as dramatic a power shift potential as Somerset) the governor has not wholly given up on the capacities of Assemblywoman Joann Downey (D-11) and Assemblyman Eric Houghtaling (D-11) in his home county of Monmouth.

It’s not inconceivable that he would put his footprints on that stage on Election Night, in part to remind them that he’s in the neighborhood, especially if victories elsewhere (in Burlington, for example) keep his intra-party enemies in other party-spheres.

But if Marano wins, Schaffer wins, and if Schaffer – who tried to stay neutral in the north versus south war for chair – wins, Murphy wins.

Now, there are other people, other players, as yet unmentioned.

Coughlin, in gear.
Coughlin, in gear, in Atlantic City, shortly before he headed south to pick green peppers with incumbent Democrats in Cape May.

Most significant among these is Speaker Craig Couglin (D-19), who has played the unenviable role of tightrope walking between the governor’s office and the senate majority office. Now Coughlin occupies his leadership seat as a consequence of South Jersey partnering with Middlesex, so he can never stray too far off the reservation, lest he become like Vinny Prieto (propelled out of power) or Sheila Oliver (propelled into the Murphy Administration, which South Jersey would argue amounts to the same fate as Prieto).

But unlike those caucus members of his who stayed away, the eminently unexcitable Coughlin showed up in Atlantic City to speak at the Friday morning breakfast, then went and campaigned with his South Jersey allies in LD1 (Cape May) and LD8 (Hammonton). The speaker is also intent on helping to defend LD2 (see ad, below). Coughlin was the only leader among the three Irish-American guys running the state straddling both worlds – progressive Atlantic City, and the surrounding conservative back country.

Potentially, the speaker – who even had time on Saturday to leave some footprints in Somerset at Danielsen’s event “and even stayed for the first class entertainment,” the Franklin Democrat said of his caucus leader – has the most to gain.

Although Norcross and Sweeney (again, there’s a senate seat at stake) will jump up and down on LD1 and LD8, Coughlin would have at least some bragging rights with Democratic wins there. But if the speaker protects LD11 and LD16 (which he most likely will) and snags additional seats or seat out of LD21 or LD25, the guy who’s never been seen to thump his chest could probably get away with it on Election Night.

Is it doable?

Sources say yes, as evidenced by assembly Republican Leader Jon Bramnick’s (R-21) continuing ads featuring only himself and not his running mate, Assemblywoman Nancy Munoz (R-21).

“We’ll know in another week or so what the polling indicates,” a source told InsiderNJ. “If Bramnick starts mentioning Munoz, that will mean the Democrats [Lisa Mandelblatt and Stacey Gunderman] are done.”

But the leader remains in every-man-for-himself mode, Coughlin could be in business.

Assemblyman Tony Bucco’s (R-25) eerily New Jersey decision to pursue his late father’s senate seat while simultaneously running for his assembly seat could trip him up and enable the Democratic assembly Campaign Committee under Coughlin’s helmsmanship to grab another seat or two.  And there are stories, probably ultimately only stories, about LD39 again showing signs – on the Assemblyman Robert Auth (R-39) side of the equation, of vulnerability. It probably won’t happen this year; but a source said Murphy – in the interest of keeping chummy relations with Morris County Democratic Chairman Chip Robinson (who faithfully showed up in Atlantic City), and building good ties to Bergen County Democratic Chairman (and supposedly master relationships-builder) Paul Juliano (the life of the party in Atlantic City), – should avail himself of turf extender duties in Bergen and Morris. The human touch  there now might tease a loser in 2019 to run again in 2021 when Murphy’s at the top of the ticket and searching for lawmakers with his fingerprints on them to replenish the legislature in time for his second term.

His presence alone in 2021 at the top of the ticket could jeopardize some of the South Jersey foes in his own party, and a handshake now could be the arm reach later to pull a much-needed friend into state government.

GOP Leaders
Kean and Bramnick.

As for Republicans, state Senate Republican Leader Tom Kean, Jr. (R-21) is understandably very focused on his own 2020 campaign for Congress.

This is it for Kean, already a loser in two federal elections.

He’s in Hail Mary mode, working the phones mostly for himself in these lengthened, overlapping runway elections.

Testa has only nice things to say about him, and the family law office features a prominently placed photo of former Governor Tom Kean, Sr.

But while the younger Kean’s political life does not depend on what happens in LD1 with Testa, he is up against he wall in his own career if he fails in his bid to unseat Malinowki in CD7.

Republican State Party Chairman Doug Steinhardt also reportedly has ambitions larger than the state

NJ Republican Party Chairman Doug Steinhardt
NJ Republican Party Chairman Doug Steinhardt

chairmanship. It’s bottled up right now, with part of the GOP establishment intrigued by running pharmaceutical magnate Bob Hugin (a loser in 2018 when he ran against U.S. Senator Bob Menendez), mostly because he can massively self-fund a party beleaguered in the aftermath of former Governor Chris Christie, who used his platform to run for president instead of statewide party building, and futher chopped to pieces by the Van Drew-tweeting Trump. Steinhardt’s best shot could include a tacit general election encompassing of those voters associated with the conservative wing of the state occupied by South Jersey otherwise known as Norcross-Sweeney Democrats, in the event that Sweeney opts out of a Democratic Primary against political enemy Murphy, which he likely will, sources say.

In any event, what appears on paper to be a pretty moribund cycle actually contains more than a few little theaters of intrigue and opportunities for flag-planting, even among modern mortals – with the obvious exceptions in this cycle of combat veteran heroes Senator Robert Andrzejczak (D) and Assemblyman Ryan Peters (R) – unsuited for real combat as the state drags toward 2021.

“If I had to bet,” said Harrison, “there will be a primary opponent [to Murphy] or the mainstay of the party could support a Republican.”

*Editor’s Note: A Democrat makes the following point: “The districts are far from gerrymandered. Just because Democrats found ways to win doesn’t mean they are gerrymandered. There are many competitive races, and while no swing in power likely, it has more to do with each party’s organization.

 

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