Dworkin on 2017: Lesser-Known Candidates Face Long Odds on Democratic Side

Phil Murphy

Phil Murphy has been all but coronated, but can New Jersey still see a competitive Democratic primary? Alyana Alfaro for Observer

The race to succeed Governor Chris Christie deflated quickly this fall, with former U.S. Ambassador to Germany Phil Murphy likely to win the nomination in an election many have already called for the Democrats. Well-funded and now well-connected with influential party chairs statewide, Murphy is likely to make short work of his main primary opponent, Assemblyman John Wisniewski—unless Wisniewski can appeal to disaffected progressives.

Speaking by phone, Rider University political scientist Ben Dworkin said that Wisniewski and Clinton Undersecretary of the Treasury Jim Johnson will both face tough odds against the one-time Goldman Sachs executive. Tom Byrne, son of former Governor Brendan Byrne, is also considering a run.

Is Murphy guaranteed the nomination at this point? What are the other candidates’ chances?

They had an easier path to the nomination when there were multiple candidates. That’s for all of them. Things have gotten much tougher for these folks since Steve Fulop and Steve Sweeney dropped out, and the vast majority of the Democratic party establishment and leadership have rallied around Phil Murphy. 

What do you make of Johnson’s campaign and Byrne’s potential run?

Tom Byrne is a very fiscally conservative Democrat who wants the party to recognize certain economic realities, and to move forward in a way that will address. A candidate like Johnson will have a huge challenge in New Jersey, where it’s very expensive to get yourself known.

The newspapers have been declining in readership, NJTV and News 12 are good but only go so far. The real way to make yourself known in this state is to either be the kind of personality that gets tremendous free media attention, or to buy media attention by putting yourself on New York and Philadelphia network TV. Those are the first and fourth most expensive media markets in the country.

Where is Wisniewski’s electoral niche?

Wisniewski provides an opportunity for those who don’t like Murphy, or have disagreements with Democrats leadership to have a candidate they can rally around. There might be others, but he’s the one who’s in it now. So if you’re not a fan of all these folks who have endorsed Murphy, then Wisniewski gives you somebody else to look for.

He’s clearly trying to channel the Bernie Sanders reformist spirit here in New Jersey. It’s certainly an uphill battle for him, as it will be for any of these other candidates. But it’s a long time, and things can happen, unexpected things can get exposed all the time.

You mentioned that a longer primary ticket would have made for a more lively contest.

It won’t make much of a difference if other, lesser-known candidates jump into the race. When there were three well-funded and established candidates positioning in this race—Murphy, Sweeney and Fulop—it was a completely different electoral battlefield.

Now that so much of the party establishment has rallied around Murphy, the less well-funded candidates are going to have a bigger challenge. Splitting the non-Murphy primary vote amongst themselves probably won’t help anybody. What they need is to grow themselves so that they cans seriously contest a sizable portion of the electorate.

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