Voter turnout – why and where what it means, not just for the election at hand but for the coming struggles under the Statehouse Dome – dominates the diner booth conversations in the tick down to Tuesday. The coming contest of Democratic gubernatorial candidate Phil Murphy versus Republican gubernatorial candidate Kim Guadagno takes on other implications, particularly regarding legislative leadership, labor strength, a legislative versus gubernatorial agenda, and suburban, urban and overall regional performance as a way to gauge political power.
The south will presumably show a spike on account of competitive elections in LD2 and LD3 and a significant competitive understory in LD2. There’s a competitive mayoral election in Atlantic City, where incumbent Mayor Don Guardian, a Republican, is trying to fend off a very motivated challenge by Camden County-connected Democrat Councilman Frank Gilliam. On the hard raising and spending side only, Guardian in his last ELEC filing reported a total $110,000 raised, including $22,000 in his final pre-11 day filing. His rival, Councilman Frank Guardian, had $25K for the home stretch. Gilliam raised $175K, including $45K in the final reporting period, for a closing balance of $79K. As expected, it’s a public sector versus private sector unions local showdown, with the Police Benevolent Association contributing money to incumbent Guardian, and Building Trades like the Ironworkers doling money, including an $8,200 check, to challenger Gilliam. The electrical workers and roofers also wrote checks to the Democrat. The Atlantic County Democratic Committee also gave Gilliam a check in the amount of $10,500.
The LD2 legislative races show Democrats spending hard-side heavy on their team ticket of Bell, Mazzeo and Armato – $1.4 million to be precise. Each of those candidates has also raised individual monies toward his campaign effort, including over $200K raised and spent by Senator Colin Bell (D-2) alone. Running against Bell for the senate seat, Assemblyman Chris Brown raised $870,000 and so far spent $551K of that amount. The latest Stockton Poll shows Brown beating Bell by three points.
LD3 is the most expensive legislative contest in state history, with a projected total spending of $16.6 million. The allies of Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-3) are very confident at this point that their candidate will defeat Republican challenger Fran Grenier. Funded largely by the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA), which wants to punish Sweeney, Grenier in recent days reached out to Republican chairs looking for money. Sources say that at least a handful – infuriated by the NJEA intrusion into the party but also sympathetic to Sweeney and nursing older intraparty war wounds – let him twist. Another source described on the ground mechanical difficulties for Grenier as well, noting that while Sweeney will have Building Trades GOTV in full-gear, rank and file teachers will be reluctant to go nuts in the streets for a senate candidate who is also chairman of the Salem County Republican Party.
Internal polling shows Guadagno running close to Murphy in LD3, a district that Donald Trump won last year; which is partly why the Republican Governors Association (RGA) – largely pinned down in a competitive Virginia Governor’s Race – spent money in the Philadelphia media market this weekend. The organization’s polling, GOP insiders say, more or less reflects the same conclusions drawn by Monmouth University Pollster and Political Scientist Patrick Murray, who sees a 14-point advantage for Murphy.
Sources say Middlesex is potentially a flat county for Democrats, which presents a challenge for County Party Chairman Kevin McCabe, who cut the deal with South Jersey to make Woodbridge Assemblyman Craig Coughlin (D-19) the next speaker. No one in either party argues persuasively that Murphy’s message has positive resonant power in the sprawling county, while Middlesex County GOP Chair Lucille Panos hosted a rally for Guadagno last week attended by 200 people. Not that the political atmosphere is the same, but Chris Christie defeated Jon Corzine by four points in 2009 in a county alert to what have arguably been Murphy’s suburban messaging missteps. Guadagno continues to hammer the Democrats as a tax-hiking, sanctuary city-expanding liberal, which Democrats fret may have penetrated in Middlesex. In Edison, former Democratic Party Chairman Keith Hahn, now running for mayor as a Republican, held a successful rally on Saturday night. Democrats are intent on a backlash, with SEIU 32BJ hammering the county’s urban areas like Perth Amboy and New Brunswick with a reminder about Guadagno’s sanctuary state ad, in an effort to motivate Latino voters for Murphy.
If Middlesex numbers appear sluggish overall for Murphy and he likewise struggles in South Jersey, while depending on the north for victory, the state could reorganize with very discernible divided Democratic Party leadership, for Sweeney and Coughlin will sit atop legislative thrones from soft Murphy regions, while the Governor-elect will stand astride a separate tower of support. Now that shouldn’t be surprising, given the divide between the NJEA and Sweeney, and the latter’s irritation with Murphy over not telling the labor union to stand down. But if Middlesex, too, drags to the polls, the divide between the legislative command center and the front office will intensify. Of course, Middlesex could exceed expectations, and Murphy will very likely be able to make the case that one of his strongest showings in Middlesex will occur in Coughlin’s district, particularly if Perth Amboy – a 7-1 Democratic registration advantage town – turns out big for the Democratic ticket. There’s some potential with Coughlin’s running mate, Yvonne Lopez, on the ticket. 2017 marks the first time in eight years that an Hispanic legislative candidate from LD19 backed by the Middlesex County Democratic Committee will appear on the ballot.
It’s volatile, fluid.
“My thought is that Sweeney – with Coughlin – in full control of the legislature – will be able to handle all the money and the real mechanical government issues, and in exchange – for the sake of peace – give Murphy the progressive bully pulpit to project liberal [guns, marihuana legalization, minimum wage, women’s health] to a national stage,” one source opined in anticipation of what he said will inevitably be collision between the legislature and the governor and a shot at resolution, in the event that Murphy proves the polling correct and defeats Guadagno on Tuesday.
Then there’s Union, a swivel county increasingly controlled by Sheriff Joe Cryan, a backer of both Sweeney and Murphy, a visible leg in each camp, who’s on the ballot Tuesday as a candidate for senate in LD20.
A man on an adjoining Central Jersey bar stool leaned in last Thursday, identified himself as a Westfield resident, and said he couldn’t help but to have heard an ongoing political conversation. He said he was a Republican, and said he was concerned. Retired HBO executive, a Democrat, Shelley Brindle is running against incumbent Republican Mayor Andy Skibitsky in his hometown and he said she’s running a real campaign. There’s some deep-set female backlash potential in the town against Donald Trump, the man noted. There’s organizing on a regular basis in front of the office of U.S. Rep. Leonard Lance (R-7), for example. State Election Law Enforcement Commission (ELEC) show LD21 incumbents State Senator Tom Kean, Jr. and Assemblyman Jon Bramnick spending heavily on themselves relative to other elections – just in case. Kean raised $300,600 and spent $183,220. A longtime loyal ally of unpopular lame duck Governor Chris Christie, Bramnick raised $507,731 and spent $339,000. Brindle has raised $82,600, according to ELEC, and had $26,000 in the bank for the closing days of the campaign, compared to $101,494 raised and $15K cash on hand for Skibitsky.
In the north, where the Democratic nominee enjoyed the pre-primary support of the quad-county alliance that in effect made him the party nominee, the Murphy Campaign anticipates an engaged Democratic Party machinery. There’s a local election in Jersey City, which should bump the numbers. Remember, until this year, Jersey City held nonpartisan elections. Anticipating that he would run for governor and seeking high performance in his hometown, Mayor Steven Fulop spearheaded the switch to partisan elections, which now benefits his old rival Murphy. Hoboken has a mayoral election, which will also help Murphy. Motivated, apparently with visions of future conquest, state Senator Brian P. Stack (D-32) has a machine performing at all-time capacity. Essex County, home to Murphy’s running mate Assemblywoman Sheila Oliver (D-34) and his Campaign Manager Brendan Gill (chairman of the Montclair Democratic Committee), has a specific obligation to perform for Murphy. Essex County Democratic Chairman Leroy Jones has a strong local organization ion his hometown of East Orange, which is also Oliver’s base.
The rest of the north does not appear as organized for Democrats.
While Republicans look all but expunged in Bergen County, Guadagno’s packaging of Murphy as an anti-suburbs, tax and sanctuary state candidate presents particular challenges for Democrats looking to spike his numbers in the big suburban county. South Bergen is somewhat Murphy-resistant, sources say, where the candidate hardly presents as a baseball and firehouse-friendly Pascrell type, which is ordinarily the profile of success. Sources appear a tighter than expected contest in LD38, and an inadvertent vote spike in Republican LD39, where Speaker Vincent Prieto (D-32) is playing as part of a doomed effort to build a caucus majority. Passaic – more specifically Paterson – is largely disorganized, with the hangover of handcuffed Mayor Jose “Joey” Torres arguably flattening voters ahead of next year’s mayoral contest.
Another question lingers for Murphy.
In the primary, his rivals (Jim Johnson, John Wisniewski, Ray Lesniak and Bill Brennan) – all running as progressives looking to stop another incursion of Goldman Sachs on the Governor’s Mansion – garnered more votes than a candidate who owned all 21 Democratic Party lines. Will that progressive wing of the party feel compelled to come out and perform again for Murphy? Establishment Democrats say it won’t matter, as Murphy – who got 244,000 votes in the primary, still more than doubled Guadagno’s 114,000 total, in a primary in which more Democrats turned out to vote in a gubernatorial election than at any other time going back to 1981. Guadagno allies will make the case that she has had the better tax message to appeal to independent voters. But her critics note that the sanctuary cities ad – played as an oversized red meat carcass to her GOP base – overkilled her chances to broaden support. More significantly, she has lacked the money to get her message out there, and again, the RGA late appears more engaged in Virginia than in New Jersey.
If the election proves closer than a double digit win, and indeed if it creeps into single digit territory, or if Guadagno shocks Murphy and beats him, the campaign will reevaluate how the Goldman Sachs candidate sent money, and will question why he opted for public financing in the general election, which capped his spending and prevented a millionaire – who if nothing else has money to spend on elections – from nuclearizing his opposition. No one in either party’s intellectual inner sanctum believes she will win, in part – and only in part – because Murphy has still outspent her 4-1 to remind voters of her connection to a Bridgegate limping Christie; however, everyone also notes the unpredictability of the cycle, of American politics generally, the anti-establishment tremors, and the preeminence ultimately of turnout, which the above proves can be ascertained to a degree but finally not encapsulated utterly, with unaffiliated voters – 2.4 million of them, more than members of any party in the state – still the defining wildcard. One insider summed it up thus: Tuesday represents not so much a two-party contest as a vote on how the ruling Democratic coalition will be structured.