Phil Murphy Elected New Jersey Governor

Phil Murphy. Kevin B. Sanders for Observer

Phil Murphy was elected the 56th governor of New Jersey on Tuesday, cruising to victory over Chris Christie’s lieutenant governor, Kim Guadagno.

Murphy had 55.4 percent of the vote to 42.5 percent for Guadagno, with 99 percent of precincts reporting, according to the Associated Press. Several news outlets called the race as soon as the polls closed at 8 p.m.

Murphy, 60, made a fortune as a Goldman Sachs executive and then served as U.S. ambassador to Germany under President Barack Obama. He will be taking the reins from a term-limited Republican who saw his star rise and fall in national politics. Christie is on track to leave office in January as the most unpopular governor in New Jersey since the advent of polling.

“I am extremely humbled and grateful and proud to accept the responsibility you’ve given me to serve as governor for the great state of New Jersey,” Murphy said in his victory speech in Asbury Park’s Convention Hall. “It won’t be easy and it certainly won’t be overnight, but let there be no doubt: starting here, starting now and starting with us, New Jersey is coming back.”

A sharp political tactician and a top fundraiser for years for national Democrats, Murphy began the race as a dark horse candidate in what was expected to be a competitive New Jersey primary. But he invested millions of dollars from his own fortune and surrounded himself with the state’s top political operatives, ending the race with a decisive victory and a mandate to wipe the slate clean of many of Christie’s policies.

New Jersey voters handed Murphy an advantage Christie never had: one-party rule. Democrats expanded their majorities in both houses of the Legislature on Tuesday, sweeping nearly all the battleground races and coming surprisingly close to knocking off Republicans in districts that were not considered competitive.

Murphy has vowed to implement a sweeping liberal agenda that includes raising taxes on the wealthy, boosting funding for education and public worker pensions, legalizing and taxing marijuana, instituting a $15 minimum wage and moving toward universal access to preschool education and tuition-free community college, among many other Democratic priorities that Christie vetoed or ignored for eight years.

Exactly one year after President Trump’s election, Murphy said New Jersey was beginning to turn back the tide. In Virginia, the only other state holding a governor’s race this year, Democrat Ralph Northam also claimed victory.

“This is one of the first major elections since Donald Trump was elected. Tonight, New Jersey sent an unmistakable message to the entire nation: We are better than this,” Murphy said in his victory speech. “We will not be silent in the face of an all out assault on American values and our constitution.”

Guadagno, 58, a former Monmouth County sheriff, staked her campaign on lowering property taxes, perennially the top issue for New Jersey voters. But public polls showed for months that she couldn’t escape Christie’s shadow. In the last weeks of the race, she adopted a tough line on undocumented immigrants, what was seen as an effort to rally conservative votes and Trump supporters. But her pivot failed to close the gap in a state that immigrant communities from all over the world call home.

In the end, public polls that for months showed Murphy with a lead in the mid-teens turned out to be mostly on target.

Murphy will take over a state with some of the worst finances in the nation. New Jersey has seen its credit downgraded repeatedly by Fitch Ratings, Moody’s Investors Service and S&P Global Ratings under Christie, mostly due to its deeply distressed $75 billion pension system and rapidly rising costs for health care. He has vowed to rectify those problems — which have been snowballing for decades — by applying his Wall Street skills.

“Our first task must be to create a stronger and fairer economy that works for 9 million who call our state home,” Murphy said. “We will see investments in public education, in infrastructure, in our colleges and universities, in clean energy and in our workforce.”

A native of Needham, Mass., a Boston suburb, Murphy spent 23 years at Goldman Sachs before becoming finance chairman of the Democratic National Committee from 2006 to 2009. After a successful stint fundraising for Democrats, Obama named Murphy ambassador to Germany, where he served from 2009 to 2013.

Although he has never held elected office, Murphy proved to be a calculating political tactician as he transformed himself from a virtual unknown to the next governor of New Jersey in the space of three years. He established a nonprofit, New Start NJ, now chaired by his wife Tammy, that gave him an entrée into the state’s policy debates and a vehicle to start making connections with stakeholders and political leaders. Upon returning from Germany, he quickly sought counsel from Julie Roginsky, a seasoned Democratic strategist who had worked several big New Jersey campaigns, and the political advertising shop Message and Media. He hired a veteran of several big statewide races, Essex County Freeholder Brendan Gill, as his campaign manager.

Murphy also used his personal wealth to overwhelm his opponents, donating handsomely to Democratic county and municipal committees to build alliances and spending $16 million of his own money to assure his chances of victory in the June primary. He cleared the field of the perceived Democratic front runners in the race — Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop, who bowed out, and Senate President Steve Sweeney — and consolidated support from North Jersey Democratic bosses.

“He didn’t take anything for granted,” said Democratic strategist Mike Soliman, “be it a voter from Sussex County or some of the largest Democratic organizations in the state.”

Murphy’s running mate, former Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-Essex), was elected the state’s second lieutenant governor. She is the first woman of color to be elected to statewide office in New Jersey, and her experience leading a chamber of the state Legislature is seen as an asset for Murphy in learning how to navigate the state’s sometimes-Byzantine political culture.

“The state of New Jersey is going to be one big challenge,” said Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen). “Nothing works. You can look at the transportation department, the family services, various licensing boards, the nursing board. I mean, there are problems every place one looks.”

To cover the cost of his many campaign promises, Murphy expects to raise taxes on wealthy individuals (including himself) and large corporations to the tune of $1 billion a year. He would round up another $300 million by taxing legal weed, and realize savings of $80 million to $100 million by overhauling health care plans for public workers. Some budget analysts say that may not be enough money to pay for all Murphy has promised, but the extra revenue may mollify concerns from Wall Street credit-rating agencies about New Jersey’s beleaguered $34.7 billion budget.

Murphy has tapped Jose Lozano, a vice president for Hackensack Meridian Health, to lead his transition team, according to Politico New Jersey. Another lobbyist, Pete Cammarano of CLB Partners, is expected to be named Murphy’s chief of staff, his top aide in Trenton, according to several sources close to the campaign.

Obama, former President Bill Clinton, former Vice President Joe Biden and other prominent Democrats stumped for Murphy on the trail in recent weeks, and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton endorsed and fundraised for him in New Jersey.

Despite those establishment ties, Murphy’s campaign surprised many for its heavily liberal bent. The resulting policy platform not only helped insulate Murphy from primary attacks over his Goldman Sachs history, it was apparently a big hit with voters in the general election Tuesday. At a time when Christie and Trump are both deeply unpopular in the Garden State, Democratic turnout was stronger than expected despite a day of icy rain.

Trump never weighed in on the New Jersey race, though he was vocal supporting the Republican candidate in Virginia, Ed Gillespie. Murphy spent months attacking the president and his policies, vowing to file a range of lawsuits to block moves that could affect New Jerseyans’ rights.

National Democrats looking for a way out of the political wilderness after Trump’s victory might take note, some experts said. In addition to his core promises — ramping up government spending and raising taxes on income above $1 million — Murphy pledged to close loopholes benefiting hedge fund managers, scale back tax subsidies for corporations, sign stricter gun-control laws, return New Jersey to the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (a cap-and-trade program that Christie pulled the state out of in his first term), restore $7.5 million in yearly appropriations Christie cut for Planned Parenthood, and start a new public bank.

“He was a Clinton Democrat who then really transformed his message, adopting some of the planks of Bernie Sanders’s platform into his campaign which served to attract core base constituencies for the Democrats,” said Brigid Harrison, a political science professor at Montclair State University. “They’re going to look at Murphy’s campaign and look to Murphy to see how they can replicate that.”

It was hard to overstate the magnitude of Democrats’ success on Tuesday.

In some legislative districts that Republicans have been trying to flip for years  — such as the 14th in the Trenton suburbs and the 38th in Bergen County — state Sen. Linda Greenstein (D-Middlesex) won with a 12-point margin and state Sen. Bob Gordon (D-Bergen) with a 14-point advantage.

Democrats knocked out one of the strongest members of the New Jersey GOP’s bench, state Sen. Jen Beck (R-Monmouth), in the 11th district. They ousted the Republican mayor of Atlantic City, Don Guardian. They flipped the 7th district’s state Senate seat, capitalizing after state Sen. Diane Allen (R-Burlington) declined to seek re-election.

Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester) prevailed in the most expensive legislative race in state history, winning re-election against a Republican challenger backed by the powerful New Jersey Education Association. Sweeney will preside over a chamber with a larger majority next year, growing from 24-16 to 25-15.

Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick and his running mate, Assemblywoman Nancy Munoz (both R-Union), came surprisingly close to defeat in what has long been a safe GOP district.

In the 8th legislative district, controlled by Republicans, Democrats came within inches of winning the two Assembly races — even though they were on no one’s radar.

Meanwhile, at the federal level, Rep. Frank LoBiondo (R-2) threw in the towel on Tuesday, announcing he will not seek re-election in 2018. That created an unexpected opening for Democrats and a chance to flip possibly four congressional seats next year instead of three.

The lone Republican who did well was Assemblyman Chris Brown (R-Atlantic), who flipped the state Senate seat in the 2nd district.

In a statement, Democratic Governors Association Chairman Dan Malloy, the governor of Connecticut, said Murphy’s victory had national ramifications. “New Jersey voters made clear that they are ready to turn the page from eight years of failed policies and failed leadership in New Jersey,” Malloy said, noting that the DGA spent nearly $4 million on the New Jersey race. “This result points to larger problems for Republicans as they play defense in many open-seat races coming up next year.”

In her concession speech, Guadagno said she would keep fighting to make living in New Jersey more affordable, but said she would wait until January before deciding her next move.

“Let us continue the fight. Let’s continue to be the woman and the man in the arena making sure New Jersey families are well cared for and a place where our families can live and work and find jobs,” she said in a concession speech in Keyport that often quoted Teddy Roosevelt.

Asked whether Christie hamstrung her bid, as polls showed consistently, Guadagno said, “No. You know what? I ran my own campaign.”

Christie agreed.

“This is not an election about me, no matter what,” he said after voting in Mendham. “If Kim wins, it is not an affirmation of my eight years. If Phil Murphy wins, it is not a rejection of my eight years. I had my referendum. My referendum was four years ago.”

Phil Murphy Elected New Jersey Governor