Race to Replace Gov. Christie Narrows to 2 Candidates

Phil Murphy, the wealthy former ambassador who plowed $16 million on his own money into his campaign, brushed aside his five Democratic rivals and Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno prevailed after a tougher-than-expected challenge from a three-term assemblyman Tuesday night as they claimed their party's nominations for New Jersey governor.
by | June 7, 2017 AT 1:00 PM

By Dustin Racioppi, Nicholas Pugliese and Catherine Carrera

Phil Murphy, the wealthy former ambassador who plowed $16 million on his own money into his campaign, brushed aside his five Democratic rivals and Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno prevailed after a tougher-than-expected challenge from a three-term assemblyman Tuesday night as they claimed their party's nominations for New Jersey governor.

Victories by the front-runners set up a five-month showdown until November's general election, where Murphy is heavily favored after nearly eight years of Republican Gov. Chris Christie and Guadagno, his lieutenant governor. The Associated Press called the races for both candidates roughly an hour after polls closed Tuesday.

Murphy, in remarks at his headquarters shortly before 10 p.m. Eastern time, wasted no time reminding people of Christie's legacy _ and by extension, his November opponent, Guadagno.

"We are going to prove that you can be both pro-growth and progressive at the same time," he said. "That fairness isn't just a nice idea, but a critical tool for making our economy work for everyone.

"I reject completely the us-versus-them leadership that defines Chris Christie and Donald Trump."

Guadagno's political career has been lived mostly in the shadow of Christie. The governor has spent much of the last 7 { years dominating the headlines _ first as a blunt-speaking rising star of the Republican Party, later as a scandal-plagued presidential also-ran.

It wasn't until recently that Guadagno began trying to distinguish herself, but it came at a time when Christie is perhaps the most toxic political figure in New Jersey.

For Murphy, Tuesday's election punctuates his unlikely rise within the Democratic Party. When he was the first to announce his candidacy in May 2016, six months before candidates typically declare, Murphy was still considered a distant third in the race. The two leading contenders in the Democratic field, Senate President Stephen Sweeney and Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop, had been planning their own campaigns for years.

But Fulop unexpectedly withdrew from consideration in the race last September and threw his support behind Murphy, and in doing so delivered his North Jersey coalition, a crucial base for the primary, to Murphy. A week later, Sweeney, of Gloucester County, dropped out of the race before even entering it, saying he saw no path to victory.

Murphy has said his initial position in the race has served as a frequent reminder through the primary campaign, where he combined his vast financial resources with the fundamentals of knocking on doors, attending local events and dialing voters for support.

"We came from literally nowhere. I wake up every morning and go to bed at night still thinking and behaving like a long shot," Murphy said in a recent interview. "Last September is the point I remember very clearly, I was the third guy in or whatever. I don't think I've changed. And I won't change."

Murphy has changed his mind on one count.

After resisting calls to limit his spending in the primary and saying that he is "not a believer in a cap," he agreed last week to participate in the state's public funding program, which gives candidates $2 for every $1 they raise. Candidate spending is limited to $13.8 million, well below the $20 million Murphy spent of his own money and donations.

Democratic rivals Sen. Ray Lesniak, former Treasury undersecretary Jim Johnson and Assemblyman John Wisniewski stepped up their criticism of Murphy as a wealthy hollow suit who is buying his political success. They have lamented New Jersey's political boss system and the influence of money. But no campaign in modern history has been successful without those two elements _ money and county organizational support.

Johnson and Wisniewski sustained their focus on Murphy in the final days before the primary, accusing him of hypocrisy for saying he would agree to spending caps in the general election if he wins and saying that his Wall Street background conflicts with his progressive platform.

Guadagno, who earns an annual salary of $141,000 as lieutenant governor, had accepted public financing in the primary but spent just a tenth of what Murphy did. Guadagno outmatched her top rival for the nomination, Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli, raising nearly double the money he had heading into the primary.

Even with a cash advantage, Guadagno still faced a strong challenge from Ciattarelli. Like Murphy, Ciattarelli had entered the race early but with little name recognition and a much lower public profile than Guadagno, the presumed front-runner.

Ciattarelli amassed a considerable base of support among county leaders with a polished message and a five-point plan for New Jersey that appeared to comprehensively address some of the state's most pressing concerns, such as school funding and tax reform.

"I have a problem with any politician that deals in the platitudes, generalities and rhetoric. I can't do that," Ciattarelli said in April.

Guadagno worked against Christie's historic unpopularity and was frequently described by her rivals as his quiet but loyal deputy. While she has recently disagreed with him publicly about some policy issues, Guadagno has pledged to continue Christie's conservative philosophy that the governor is the last line of defense between the Democratic Legislature and taxpayers' wallets.

She ran her campaign opposing all tax increases, and dubbed Ciattarelli "High Tax Jack" because he had proposed a package of reforms that he said would raise rates on high-income earners while also lowering tax bills overall.

Ciattarelli had the preferred ballot position in just seven counties of New Jersey's 21 counties and took a month off at the beginning of the year to undergo treatment for cancer.

Ciattarelli presented himself to voters as a new voice for the Republican Party after nearly eight years of rule by Christie and Guadagno. Although he had originally expressed a distaste for negativity, Ciattarelli increasingly portrayed Guadagno as a Christie loyalist who bore at least some responsibility for the state's record 11 credit-rating downgrades but could not claim as much credit as she did for its improved economy.

As lieutenant governor, Guadagno had been charged by Christie to promote job growth and find ways to improve the economy.

A former accountant who recently sold his medical publishing company, Ciattarelli struck tones similar to that of Christie through the primary campaign. He has promised to deliver hard truths and disregard political expedience in favor of problem-solving, much as Christie had in his first term.

"Anybody that thinks that we can solve New Jersey without some pain is disingenuous. The whole is that deep, and I'm not going down that way," Ciattarelli said in April. "I'm telling you this about Jack Ciattarelli: I do not care if I'm re-elected."

In the eight years since Christie won the Republican primary, the number of Democratic voters has increased, from 1.75 million to 2.05 million, according to the state division of elections. Republicans have added about half as many registered voters in that time, from 1.03 million to 1.2 million, while the number of unaffiliated voters has remained about the same, with 2.4 million.

(c)2017 The Record (Hackensack, N.J.)