2016 is shaping up to be the most unpredictable presidential year on the books, and it’s still months from either party’s convention. New Jersey may have its first consequential presidential primary in years if the Republican nominating contest doesn’t narrow down to two candidates in time. With Governor Chris Christie ceding the place he expected in the spotlight spotlight with his endorsement of Donald Trump for president last month, PolitickerNJ decided to look at who else in state politics might be a bellwether for a cycle that has kept pundits guessing.
- Governor Chris Christie and the Trump effect — The combative governor said himself at a press conference last month that if primary frontrunner Donald Trump hadn’t entered the race, he believes his tell-it-like-it-is persona would have sealed the nomination for him. Christie rose to power on the strength of his brash demeanor and his willingness to cut deals that would be seen as inconsistent with the party line anywhere but New Jersey. It’s an open question whether the governor’s endorsement for Trump will yield a VP or attorney general nod, but Christie may go down in history as unknowingly testing the waters for Trump with his bullying style.
- U.S. Senator Cory Booker and the rise of social media — Though Booker’s calculated public appearances and restraint on hot-button issues put him in the company of older establishment Democrats for whom longevity is the first priority, the former Newark mayor was ahead of the curve on social media during his first term in that city. Booker’s social media presence has arguably made him the most recognizable political figure in New Jersey for young voters behind Chris Christie, and his jesting feud with Conan O’Brien in 2009 blurred the line between politician and entertainer long before Trump made the move from reality TV to the podium. Booker’s youthful charisma has made him some New Jersey Democratic chairmen’s first choice for a Clinton running mate.
- State Senator Mike Doherty and the GOP’s ideological turn — With Republican presidential runner-up Ted Cruz giving some in the party pause with his far-right stances and refusal to cooperate with Senate Democrats, John Kasich has become the sole Republican contender to express openness to compromise. Doherty has kept his own conservative libertarian fire burning since 2008, refusing to budge on issues like interventionist foreign policy and government spending. Despite the pressure to be more hawkish on one side and the Senate’s deep-blue majority on the other, Doherty has shown himself to be consistently unwilling to budge despite his Somerset County district’s moderate reputation.
- State Senator Jeff Van Drew and the breakdown of partisan predictability — The 2016 presidential cycle has seen Hillary Clinton adjust to the times and move to the left to outpace Bernie Sanders, but the former first lady was also instrumental in the Clinton administration’s jarring moves to the right on welfare and drug policy during Bill’s first term. Van Drew has played a similar long game, capturing the conservative first legislative district for the Democrats by running as a right-leaning Democrat and eventually seeing his protégées through to the Assembly. With Trump’s divisiveness even driving former governor Christine Todd Whitman to say she would sooner vote for Clinton, party affiliations could become more tied to expediency at the local level than ever.
- Newark Mayor Ras Baraka and the return of grass roots — Baraka has stayed mum on who he favors between Clinton and Sanders, but he and Sanders have more in common than a mutual sympathy for progressive causes. Baraka’s rise on a platform critical of centrist Cory Booker’s record saw him come out strong for returning local control to Newark schools and offering city refinancing of underwater mortgages resulting from the post-recession foreclosure crisis. The one-time high school principal and city councilman yields the most power of New Jersey’s grassroots success stories at the helm of its largest city.