The numbers are in the north.
It’s an undeniable truth any New Jersey politician or gubernatorial hopeful will have to contend with if someone south of the state’s North-South divide throws their hat in the ring for the governor’s seat following Gov. Chris Christie’s departure (whenever that may be).
Nowhere is the divide more exemplified in New Jersey than within the state’s Democratic Party.
South Jersey, although unified and in control of the largest voting bloc in the state Legislature, lacks the sheer volume the north holds when it comes to casting ballots. The roadblock means future hopefuls will have to navigate carefully if they hope to grab onto the seat a South Jersey pol hasn’t held in nearly two decades.
“Solid support from the south,” said the state’s last South Jersey executive, Gov. Jim Florio, when asked of the must-haves of any South Jersey hopeful mounting a campaign.
“Solid support,” he said.
A fractured south would dash any hopeful’s chances of a serious campaign. But on the other hand, a unified coalition would give a single South Jersey candidate an edge if northern Democratic factions – known to be singing to different tunes – can’t rally around one candidate.
“The South Jersey legislative delegation is almost uniform,” notes Florio, saying “it was not the case” when he ran for governor, but explaining the uniformity signals solid support – which could translate into serious political gains.
“The north has numbers, but the south has leverage,” said one northern Democratic official.
“The leverage in the Legislature and what their solidarity brings in their singular mission, to me, could make it an interesting fight,” the source said. “If they don’t have any northern counties, they can’t win. But with the south legislative leverage, if they pick off Bergen, if they pick off Essex or if they pick off Union, then they’re in the ball game.”
Past failures to forge better alliances with key northern counties has been a lesson learned for South Jersey Democrats, said U.S. Rep. Rob Andrews (D-1), who ran his own unsuccessful bid for governor in 1997.
“I think South Jersey Democrats have done a great job in the last decade,” said Andrews, referring to leadership and lawmakers alike making solid gains in the New Jersey Statehouse and other areas of political power in the state.
Like Florio, Andrews says solid support among southern Democrats translates into political power, which then allows lawmakers and officials to forge relationships with people in northern counties.
“I think the southern Democrats learned the lessons of how you could lose due to geography,” he said, arguing, “If you do it right, geography isn’t so important.”
Former Gov. Jim McGreevey defeated Andrews in the Democratic primary because he forged the right relationships, not because he had a northern New Jersey zip code, Andrews said.
By his count, Essex and Hudson together make up at least 43 percent of the statewide vote by themselves, compared to South Jersey garnering somewhere around 25 percent of the total vote. If a future southern gubernatorial candidate can secure one of the counties, it’s an edge. Both? It’s unbeatable, he says.
“That’s a pretty tough race to lose,” Andrews said. “By being cohesive internally, the leadership has put itself in a position where if they get behind a candidate and have an alliance with one or two northern counties, … it’s pretty hard to beat.”
Whether it’s Senate President Steve Sweeney, Assembly Majority Leader Lou Greenwald or Assemblyman Troy Singleton, any potential future gubernatorial candidate from the south could have success if they forge the right relationships now, he said.
“If there is a South Jersey candidate,” says Andrews, “I think that person would have a great chance to win because of the relationships [they’ve forged].”
Of course, the sentiment isn’t shared by every Democratic official in New Jersey.
“You’ve got to look at the numbers,” said another Democratic source who represents Northern Jersey.
“They talk a great game, but it doesn’t correspond to the numbers they produce,” the source said. “That’s a big issue at the end of the day.”
Whether northern officials and power brokers will ultimately back a southern Democrat when the time actually comes remains to be seen. Both sides have split the power in the Legislature, but when it comes to voting a person into the executive’s seat, things could be less cordial.
“The numbers are still in the northern counties,” the source stressed. “The south can’t do it without a strong alliance with Essex County or other counties like it.”