TRENTON, N.J. — The legacies of Republican Gov. Chris Christie and his Democratic predecessor Jon Corzine could haunt the race to become New Jersey’s next top executive.
It’s a year away, but the 2017 race to succeed Christie as governor — one of the most powerful state executives in the nation — already has a leading candidate: former U.S. ambassador to Germany and Goldman Sachs executive Phil Murphy, whose resume parallels the one-term, wealthy former Wall Street executive Corzine.
At least one Republican candidate, Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli, has entered the race, but whoever wins the GOP nomination will have to grapple with Christie’s unpopularity.
The contest came into sharp focus just as the presidential race between Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump enters the final month of campaigning. With neither candidate concentrating on the reliably Democratic New Jersey, most political watchers have already set their sights toward 2017.
In the past two weeks, two of the men considered front-runners for the Democratic nomination dropped out of the race, all but clearing the field for Murphy and bringing the party together sooner than Republicans. Senate President Steve Sweeney dropped out Thursday before officially announcing his run, and Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop did the same last week. Sweeney and Fulop were considered Murphy’s top opposition.
Murphy also won the backing of the state’s biggest teachers’ union on Saturday, when the New Jersey Education Association’s political action committee unanimously endorsed him for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination. The union said it will conduct a similar screening process for Republican gubernatorial candidates.
Murphy surged to the top of the Democratic pack by entering the race before anyone else in May, securing key endorsements, holding town halls across the state and infusing his campaign with a $10 million loan.
“We’re 18 months away but barring any horrific skeletons or incredible screw-ups, Murphy is certainly likely to be the next governor,” Seton Hall associate political science professor Matthew Hale said.
Republicans are tagging Murphy to Corzine, who helped fund the party while running and serving as governor, and Democrats relish the chance to hang Christie and his record low approval in New Jersey around Republicans’ necks.
Republicans, though, think they’ve struck gold because Murphy and Corzine, whom Christie defeated in 2009, both worked at Goldman Sachs. “All Aboard the Corzine 2.0 Gravy Train,” the state party wrote in an email after Sweeney endorsed Murphy.
Murphy rejects the comparison, and has earned a reputation as a more charismatic campaigner than the former governor.
Christie doesn’t have a GOP successor yet. The top prospects are Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, who was elected twice with Christie, and Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick, who has been one of Christie’s top proponents in the Legislature. Ciattarelli has distanced himself from Christie by renouncing Trump, but many of his positions overlap with the governor’s, such as reforming public worker health benefits.
Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, who had supported Sweeney until last week and now backs Murphy, said Democrats would push to link whoever the Republican nominee is to answer for Christie’s record.
“They have been Christie’s enablers,” she said.
Bramnick defends Christie. He calls him champion of tax cuts and says if it weren’t for him, New Jersey residents would be paying more in income taxes.