Following one state Democrat’s official announcement of his gubernatorial bid yesterday, primary season for the 2017 election has begun in earnest. Former Golman Sachs executive and U.S. Ambassador to Germany Phil Murphy faces a crowded field of anticipated rivals for the nomination, including Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-3) and Jersey City mayor Steve Fulop. With the Sweeney-sponsored $15 minimum wage bill expected to drive Democratic turnout with a ballot question, Republican sources said the party will need their own populist cause — or super PAC — in order to compete in a race where Democrats have captured the most attention so far.
Support for that minimum wage increase has been the common thread in the early, unofficial jockeying between Sweeney, Fulop, Murphy and others like Senator Ray Lesniak (D-20) and Assemblywoman Shavonda Sumter (D-35). Between that popular proposal going to a vote and Democrats’ support from independent groups like the General Majority super PAC, Republicans will need bring something similar to the table as they combat the perception that the Democratic primary will decide Governor Chris Christie’s successor.
One Republican insider noted that early gubernatorial favorites like Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno and Assemblyman Jack Ciatarelli (R-16) will already face an uphill battle against Democrats’ deep pockets and outsize PAC support.
There is “no option to go without” a Republican super PAC for another cycle, the source said.
On Democrats’ early emphasis on the minimum wage, Monmouth University pollster Patrick Murray said he doesn’t believe Republicans have an equally galvanizing centerpiece for their platform. Ciatarelli made an early call to revise the state’s school funding formula last month, an issue Murray said could prove compelling for voters in New Jersey’s scattered underfunded school districts.
“I don’t think the Republicans have a hot-button issue yet,” said Murray, adding that school funding or property tax relief could come to the forefront.
As for those changes to the school funding formula, which would divert aid from wealthy former wards of the state like Jersey City back to underfunded suburban suburban districts in Asbury Park and Freehold, Senator Mike Doherty (R-23) said by phone that he has brought his own Senate bill to Ciatarelli and Guadagno in hopes of building up the party’s platform and addressing an urgent policy boondoggle.
“I think it would make any Democrat much more beatable if we pointed out to people that suburban towns are getting $500 or $1,000 a kid in school funding and urban towns are getting $25,000,” said Doherty, adding that Republican-leaning fundraising sources like the New Jersey Business and Industry Association will need to reward Republicans with strong pro-business records instead of giving to Republicans and Democrats alike next cycle.
“I am heartened that folks like Jack Ciatarelli are also coming on board on the issue,” he continued, pointing to his raft of Senate cosponsors. “I recently talked to Lieutenant Governor Guadagno and shared my thoughts and she seemed to be interested in a more equitable distribution of school funding.”
As for the question of Christie’s 26 percent approval rating casting a shadow over Republicans’ eventual nominee, Rider University political scientist Ben Dworkin said voters’ favorability toward Christie has time to change between now and 2017.
“A week is a lifetime in politics and we have many lifetimes before people actually vote,” said Dworkin.