The last time a Democratic governor ran for re-election in New Jersey, it didn’t go so well.
In 2009, the U.S. was in a devastating recession, and Governor Jon Corzine had spent much of his first term fighting with Democrats in the state legislature. He went on to lose a close race to the Republican candidate, former U.S. Attorney Chris Christie.
This year, Governor Phil Murphy is seeking re-election under circumstances that sound strikingly similar, except for one obvious difference.
“I think the pandemic really defined him and gave him a chance to show leadership skills in a way that people hadn't seen prior to that,” said Mike DuHaime of Mercury Public Affairs, a top Republican strategist in New Jersey who crafted Christie’s two successful campaigns.
In his first years in office, Murphy largely flew under the radar for many New Jersey voters. The pandemic changed that.
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“In terms of what he has going for him, he has a positive image about coronavirus, which to me is the defining issue of his governorship,” DuHaime said.
Now, some 60% of New Jersey voters approve of the governor’s job performance. If that holds, there’s little doubt he would be easily re-elected.
“If his job approval rating starts to dip below 50%, then voters will need to take a look at what the alternative is,” said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute. “And if the alternative ends up being too far to the right, they'll probably stick with Phil Murphy.”
New Jersey Republicans got some help this week when Doug Steindhardt—the former head of the state GOP who tied his political brand to President Trump—dropped out of the race following the riot at the U.S. Capitol. That boosts the chances of Jack Ciatterelli, a former Assemblyman who’s been more tepid in his support for the President, as the Republican candidate to win June’s primary and go head-to-head with Murphy in November.
If Murphy is facing a moderate Republican, and the public health crisis has ended, he could face a very different political landscape next fall.
“The question is, has he built up enough reserve for him to hold on to the goodwill that he has right now and to overcome some of those typical things that can cause voters in New Jersey to sour on a governor - such as property taxes and the cost of living and all those other things—which are going to come tumbling back on us once we get out of this pandemic,” Murray said.
Murphy is one of the most progressive governors in the county, and he fully embraces many of the issues central to the Democratic party’s progressive wing. But lately, he’s made some moves to shore up the political center, courting moderate Democrats, independents, and the business community. And that’s angered his progressive base.
Murphy cut deals with Senate President Steven Sweeney that allowed Sweeney to sit on the state commission that will redraw New Jersey’s legislative districts. The governor also signed onto a $14 billion corporate tax-break program that he spent much of his first years in office criticizing for lack of oversight and the benefits it bestowed on the state’s politically-connected.
“There's a group of insiders, I will say mostly men and white males around him, that are telling him that the way to win reelection is to move to the middle—to begin to cut deals with the machines and the county bosses,” said Patricia Campos-Medina, a progressive leader.
Environmentalists and South Jersey progressives are also upset with Murphy’s approval of a terminal on the Delaware River that would store fracked gas from Pennsylvania. It’s a project also championed by Sweeney and the powerful South Jersey Democratic Party machine, led by the Senate President’s childhood friend George Norcross.
“Like a lot of people in South Jersey, I am feeling disappointed in some recent decision making that seems to make clear that the battle with Norcross and Sweeney has really cooled off from the governor's point of view,” said Kate Delany, president of South Jersey Progressive Democrats.
Progressives were also hoping Murphy would put some political muscle behind the effort to reform New Jersey’s ballot design, which gives preferential treatment to candidates endorsed by each county’s party machine. That process makes it difficult for upstart candidates to challenge incumbents or candidates allied with the political establishment. In fact, no incumbent state legislator who ran with the county endorsement has lost a primary since 2009, according to an analysis by the Communications Workers of America. During that same period, 22 incumbents in New York state lost their primaries.
Delany expects the governor to fully take advantage of machine endorsements. But while she’s disappointed, she said it’s not enough to vote against Murphy.
“In order to make change in South Jersey, it really has to be, you know, a bottom up change. It really has to be in the grassroots,” Delany said.
Murphy still enjoys broad support from New Jersey Democrats on the core of his agenda in the increasingly-blue state, and he accomplished much of what he promised during his 2017 campaign. He raised the minimum wage, passed a millionaire’s tax and is in the final straps of a years-long effort to legalize recreational marijuana.
But even the goodwill that Murphy’s built up with progressives might necessarily apply to Black voters in the Garden State.
“He was put into office by Black people, people of color,” said the Rev. Charles Boyer of the Bethel AME Church in Woodbury and the founder of Salvation and Social Justice. “Ninety four percent of Black people voted for the governor and he very much knows that.”
Boyer says he fought to ensure the marijauna legalization legislation included reparations for Black communities disproportionately impacted by drug enforcement policy, and to release state prisoners at risk of contracting COVID.
“These are all things that definitely are not popular with white voters, but were necessary, from a justice standpoint,” Boyer said. “I had to be very vocal. But ultimately, time and time again, the governor has, for the most part, fallen on the right side of those issues.”
Boyer hopes the governor won’t do what many a Democrat has done before, and take the Black vote for granted.
Even assuming that Murphy maintains his overwhelming support from the Democratic base, he could face a different peril come November. Namely, the state’s 10% unemployment rate -- the same number that doomed Governor Corzine in the close 2009 governor’s race.
DuHaime, the Republican strategist who ran Christie’s 2009 campaign, said Murphy’s performance during the pandemic will only go so far, and if the public health crisis is in the rearview mirror, voters could turn on him.
“It's not about what people think right now. It’s about what are people going to be thinking in September, October, and November about the state of the economy,” said DuHaime “If unemployment is very high, that will be a problem for Governor Murphy. If it's steadily coming down, that will be another plus for Governor Murphy.”