Competition to succeed Republican New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie in next year’s election is ratcheting up.
The race took a turn this week when Democratic Assemblyman John Wisniewski, who carved out a name for himself leading the legislative investigation into the George Washington Bridge scandal, announced his candidacy for the June primary.
Wisniewski joins the race after Phil Murphy, a fellow Democrat, onetime Goldman Sachs executive and Obama administration diplomat, consolidated considerable support within the party including from key party chairmen and lawmakers. He also loaned his campaign $10 million, a boost that others have not matched.
Murphy’s position is strong, but Wisniewski is staking his candidacy on a potent—and recent—example: the national Democratic Party’s backing of establishment favorite Hillary Clinton over Vermont U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders.
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On the GOP side, Christie is prevented by term limits from running again and is unpopular in New Jersey. He’s taken shots at Murphy but hasn’t thrown support to any of the Republicans running or expected to announce a run. Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli is officially in the race for Republicans. Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno and Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick are expected to announce their intentions to run.
A closer look at the contest:
Democrats just lost a national election after picking the nominee with more establishment support. Hillary Clinton lost to Republican Donald Trump after the party picked her over Sanders. Wisniewski, who was Sanders’ New Jersey campaign chairman before backing Clinton when she won the primary, is seizing on this connection.
“I believe it’s time we have policies that work for everyone in our state, not just the wealthy and well-connected,” he said.
Still, Wisniewski is not an outsider. He’s been in the Assembly since 1996 and was the state party chairman in 2010. Establishment support, which tilts toward Murphy, counts for a lot, providing favorable ballot positions and potential for volunteers for turnout efforts.
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Murphy also was not the Democratic-candidate-in-waiting the same way Clinton was. The race looked to be competitive until Murphy began to consolidate support and several other high-profile candidates dropped out of running before officially announcing.
Murphy is leading the money race, by a lot. Wisniewski has not reported any fundraising yet to the state election commission. In addition to the $10 million loan, Murphy has spent about $1.7 million so far on the primary, including on digital and television ads, according to state records.
Ciattarelli, the Republican, has spent about $200, records show. Neither Bramnick nor Guadagno has formed a committee yet, though Bramnick has embarked on a tour with mayors across the state and Guadagno founded a think tank to work on policy prescriptions.
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New Jersey and Virginia are outliers when it comes to electing governors, going to the ballot in the year after presidential elections. In each election going back to Republican Tom Kean in 1985, New Jersey residents selected a governor from the party opposite of the winner of the presidential election. If that trend holds true, then the winner of the Democratic primary is in strong position going into the November election because Trump won this year.
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CHRISTIE AND THE GOP
Republicans are on the ropes in New Jersey. The party lost the registration battle in 2016, which saw Democrats grow the gap from about 600,000 more voters to 800,000 more through November, according to state data. They also control a minority of seats in the Legislature, with Democrats shaving their margin in 2015 by four Assembly seats.
Christie’s approval rating is also at record lows, and there’s uncertainty about whether he will finish his term, which ends in 2018, because he may be selected for a Trump administration post. Christie has said he would consider a post if offered, but his circumstances, which looked bright for him after Trump’s win, have changed. He said this week he has “every intention” of staying. Were he to leave, Guadagno would succeed him, giving her a chance to govern before potentially announcing her own run.