By John Celock
The Democratic and Republican frontrunners easily captured their respective party nominations for New Jersey governor Tuesday night.
Election returns show former Goldman Sachs executive Phil Murphy easily defeating three opponents for the Democratic nomination with 48 percent of the vote. On the Republican side, Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno easily captured her party’s nomination with 47 percent of the vote. The two are competing for the right to succeed term limited Gov. Chris Christie (R).
In the Democratic primary, Murphy captured 48 percent of the vote, compared to 22 percent for former U.S. Treasury Undersecretary Jim Johnson, 22 percent for Assemblyman John Wisniewski and five percent for state Sen. Ray Lesniak. On the Republican side, Guadagno captured 47 percent compared to 31 percent for Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli and 10 percent for businessman Hirsh Singh. Both Murphy and Guadagno have been considered the frontrunners for the entire race.
Murphy, a former U.S. ambassador to Germany, had originally been considered a longshot candidate in a Democratic field long expected to be dominated by Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop and state Senate President Steve Sweeney. Murphy’s $18 million in donations to Democratic Party groups statewide, along with aggressive outreach to county Democratic officials and targeted hiring of campaign staff led to North Jersey Democratic leaders to rally around his candidacy last year, effectively pushing Fulop out of the race. The North Jersey rally around Murphy led to South Jersey leaders to rethink their support of Sweeney, who dropped out of the race shortly after Fulop.
With the backing of the Democratic Party committees in each of the state’s 21 counties, Murphy was considered the frontrunner, with manpower to provide an easy victory over his three opponents. The real race had developed into a contest for second place between Wisniewski and Johnson. Johnson, who ran an aggressive television campaign narrowly edged, Wisniewski, a former state Democratic Party chairman and Bernie Sanders supporter for second place. Wisniewski, the Assembly Transportation Committee chairman, had achieved national attention for leading the state Legislature’s investigation into Bridgegate.
Murphy has positioned himself as a progressive candidate in the field, calling for the creation of a state bank and more money for schools and state employees. He has said that he would lead the state to oppose President Donald Trump, a part time New Jersey resident. Murphy has also taken pains to distance himself from comparisons between him and former Gov. Jon Corzine (D), a former Goldman Sachs executive who was defeated by Christie in 2009. Corzine had long maintained a distance from the state’s Democratic Party operation, while Murphy has embraced his ties with party leaders.
On the Republican side, Guadagno, a former Monmouth County sheriff, found herself both embracing and pushing away from her eight years as the unpopular Christie’s number two. She touted her work as lieutenant governor, where she has served as New Jersey’s secretary of state and economic development czar. She also stressed her hundreds of days as the state’s acting governor when Christie has been outside of the state pursuing his national political ambitions. At the same time, Guadagno has tried to distance herself from the unpopular two-term governor, stressing her opposition to the gas tax hike Christie championed and Christie’s multimillion-dollar plan to renovate the Statehouse in Trenton.
Ciattarelli worked to establish himself as the conservative alternative to the more moderate Guadagno. A former county freeholder and mayor, Ciattarelli stressed his experience as a small business owner and long time opposition to the gas tax plan. He and Guadagno battled at county GOP conventions around the state, with the two capturing the backing of several key counties. While Guadagno has aggressive worked the GOP grassroots around the state for eight years, Ciattarelli tapped into dissatisfaction among some grassroots activists with Christie’s lack of focus on building the state Republican Party.
Guadagno, the state’s first lieutenant governor, is one of eight women to have run statewide as a major party nominee in New Jersey and only the third woman to be nominated by a major party for governor in the state’s history, following Democrat Barbara Buono in 2013 and Republican Christine Todd Whitman in 1993 and 1997. Whitman is the only woman to serve as governor of New Jersey.
Murphy and Guadagno now must select their running mates for lieutenant governor, a move that is due within 30 days.