With the potential 2017 Democratic gubernatorial primary sucking up most of New Jersey’s attention, PolitickerNJ decided to explore the Republican side of the race and see which issues might come to define the GOP primary next year.
So far, potential candidates in the Republican primary race include Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno, Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick, state Senator Mike Doherty and Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli. The only Republican candidate to make a candidacy official is the little-known Joseph Rudy Rullo, a businessman from Ocean County.
Here is a list of some issues that will likely come into play when the Grand Ole Party is deciding who they hope will occupy the NJ governor’s residence known as Drumthwacket after Governor Chris Christie makes his departure in January 2018:
- Ties to Governor Christie. Political pundits have argued that Governor Christie–and his 26 percent approval rating–have done severe damage to the Republican brand in New Jersey, stacking the odds against potential Republican candidates who may hope to follow him. However, some candidates in the New Jersey GOP are much closer to Christie that others. Both Lieutenant Governor Guadagno and Assemblyman Bramnick are strongly connected to the governor, something that could hurt them if New Jersey’s voters are looking for something different next November.
Connections to presidential candidate Donald Trump. While Trump officially accepted the Republican Party’s presidential nomination at last month’s Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, his candidacy has left many in the party disheartened. In New Jersey, notable names like former Republican Governor Christie Todd Whitman have come out sharply against Trump. This week, news broke that former Christie staffer Maria Comella had decided to vote for Democratic candidate former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton over Trump. Longtime Jeb Bush adviser Sally Bradshaw made a similar announcement earlier this week. With the public and the Republican establishment so conflicted about the Republican nominee, would-be gubernatorial candidates like Mike Doherty who have been outspoken supporters of Trump may face backlash if Trump fails to become the next president of the United States. However, if Trump comes out on top, those connections may prove to be useful.
- School funding. With both Governor Christie and Democrat Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-3)–a likely gubernatorial candidate in the Democratic primary–pushing conflicting school funding proposals, the issue is likely to become a wedge issue in the upcoming gubernatorial contest. Doherty has long made school funding a priority and he has come out in full support of Christie’s “fairness formula” that plans to supply equal amounts of state aid to all students across the state and do away with need-based funding distribution. Here, candidates will need to decide how to approach school funding in a way that will most appeal to voters in New Jersey. With the issue so high on the radar of so many, it likely cannot be ignored during campaign season and candidates will have to pick sides and present proposals early on.
- Guadagno’s potential incumbent status. With Christie playing such a prominent role in Trump’s campaign, there has been significant speculation that the sitting governor might leave the New Jersey State House in order to take a role in a possible Trump administration. Potential roles like attorney general and Trump’s chief of staff have been floated for Christie, the current head of Trump’s transition team. Last week at a forum in Bergen County, Christie said that he would be open to a position with Trump and that, if he took one, he would depart the State House by the end of the year. An early Christie departure would boost Guadagno to the role of governor and make her an incumbent, effectively ending any potential for a competitive Republican primary in New Jersey. Of course, that is all contingent upon Trump getting elected.
Public pensions. Another topic that will likely become a wedge issue during the gubernatorial race is the public pension issue. Currently, Sweeney is caught up in a battle with the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) and the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) due to statements by the groups that they will withhold campaign contributions until a pension amendment allowing voters to decide if the state must contribute timely pension payments is guaranteed to appear on the ballot this November. Ciattarelli swiftly issued a statement applauding Sweeney for calls to investigate those groups. However, with a primary looming, opponents might seize the opportunity to lump the two together, damaging the campaigns of both candidates. Additionally, while Democrats have largely supported a pension amendment, the majority of Republicans have been strongly opposed. In June, Bramnick issued a statement claiming that the pension amendment would make the “pension problem worse.” That take by Republicans will allow the GOP to differentiate themselves from the Dems during the primary and appeal to tax-wary voters who may be against the amendment. With pensions also being such a focal point of the campaign season, Guadagno may also see pension double-dipping claims from when she was Monmouth County Sheriff resurface.
- The Transportation Trust Fund. Like pensions, the TTF will be an unavoidable topic during the primary. As it now stands, Democrats are pushing a 23 cent per gallon gas tax at the pump paired with other tax reductions. Governor Christie agreed to that 23 cent tax but only if there are significant tax cuts elsewhere that ensure “tax fairness.” In search of that fairness, Christie struck a deal with Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto to cut the sales tax from seven percent to six percent but that deal has stalled. If Republicans in the governor’s race can offer strong competing plans, they may see a boost during the primary.
Disclosure: Donald Trump is the father-in-law of Jared Kushner, the publisher of PolitickerNJ and Observer Media.