Analysis: New Jersey Governor’s Race Underway

By John Celock

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) is still running for president and his second (and final) term doesn’t end until January 2018, but make no mistake, the race to succeed him is firmly underway.

The Democratic field to succeed Christie has been getting underway for over a year and this week kicks into a higher gear with one candidate speaking and another debuting a new web presence. On the GOP side, the two likely candidates continue to establish themselves through frequent statewide tours.

On Tuesday, Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop (D) unveiled a new website that focuses on his accomplishments in City Hall but starts laying out his vision on a variety of issues that are more statewide in perspective. Fulop, an Iraq War veteran who has been positioning himself for governor since entering the mayor’s office in 2013, drops several hints towards a gubernatorial run in a site that says it was paid for by Fulop’s 2017 campaign, but does not indicate for which office he will be running. Fulop can also seek a second term as mayor that year.

On his redesigned website, Fulop uses the space to note his beliefs on voting rights, LGBT rights and civil rights, going beyond the range of city government issues that would dominate any urban mayor’s agenda. At the same time, Fulop does highlight his accomplishments, including paid sick leave, lowered crime stats and economic development, setting the stage for parts of his likely campaign.

Fulop does move out of Jersey City in write-ups on the site which note that “Born to Stay” should be the title of the iconic song by Jersey native Bruce Springsteen and not “Born to Run” saying that New Jersey residents should be staying in the Garden State.

While Fulop is announcing a new website, on Wednesday evening state Sen. Ray Lesniak (D-Elizabeth) will be speaking at a Democratic meeting sponsored by the Cranford Democratic Club and the Union County Democratic Committee. Lesniak, a former state Democratic Party chairman who has recently indicated that he planned to run for governor, is drifting to the suburban part of his home county with the speech, outside of his urban base.

Lesniak’s speech comes as he positions himself as the fourth candidate in the Democratic field joining Fulop, Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-West Deptford) and former ambassador to Germany Phil Murphy. Lesniak differs from the others as a long time fixture in Garden State politics, having first entered the Legislature in the 1970s and helming the state party in the 1990s, while establishing himself as a legal powerhouse.

The Cranford Democrats are also positioning themselves to be known in the 2017 gubernatorial battles. Fulop previously spoke at a fundraiser for the local party organization, while Lesniak is speaking Wednesday. Later this month, Murphy is headed to Cranford to speak. Cranford and Union County could be pivotal in the primary election with loyalties of various counties being split amongst the field.

South Jersey will likely back Sweeney, while Hudson County will go behind Fulop. Essex County can potentially split with some backing Fulop, who has formed strong alliances there, while Murphy has retained Essex County Freeholder Vice President Brendan Gill (D-Montclair) as a consultant and is close to state Sen. Dick Codey (D-Livingston), a former governor who hails from Essex. While Lesniak hails from Union County, the divide that at times separates urban and suburban Democrats in the county could benefit one of his opponents.

On the Republican side, attention remains on Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno and Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick (R-Westfield) as likely candidates. Guadagno continues to travel the state attending both official events in her dual role as lieutenant governor and secretary of state and political events at the county and local level. Guadagno’s attendance at even the smallest local GOP event is unlikely to go unforgotten by Republican activists when 2017 rolls. In addition, Christie’s presidential campaign has given Guadagno the extra role of acting governor, allowing her free publicity and to be seen by voters in a gubernatorial role.

Bramnick is using this year’s Assembly races to ramp up his statewide efforts, traveling to districts around the state to meet activists and gain support for 2017. Close to Christie, Bramnick is also trying to use those connections to gain support.

The political maneuvering in New Jersey is likely to continue to gain steam rather than be reduced going forward. With Christie continuing to travel the New Hampshire countryside seeking a move to the White House, his home state will continue to focus on the post-Christie era. With the possibility of more candidates entering the governor’s race and the competition amongst the current candidates gaining, the focus on the post-Christie era will likely continue even if Christie’s presidential dreams come up empty.