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Gov. Phil Murphy, left, with Senate President Steve Sweeney.

Norcross can’t take Murphy in primary, but could cost him re-election

Blue Jersey hasn’t re-elected a Democratic governor since 1977

By David Wildstein, May 13 2019 12:56 am

New Jersey is one of the bluest states in the nation, but Democrats have not re-elected a governor in 42 years — sometimes because they eat their young.

After just sixteen months in office, Phil Murphy finds himself in the middle of another intra-party battle that potentially threatens his party’s hold on the governorship.  

Murphy had an uneasy relationship with Senate President Steve Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin from the start of his administration, but now the battle has extended into a war with New Jersey’s most powerful insider, George E. Norcross III.

Norcross has threatened to mount a primary challenge against Murphy.  But Murphy’s numbers are solid among Democrats — an April Rutgers-Eagleton/FDU poll has Murphy’s job approvals among voters of his own party at 79%-15% — and it’s unlikely that he would lose a Democratic primary.  

County Democratic organizations that refuse to support Murphy for renomination could face their own primary contests, if the incumbent governor decides to run his own slates of legislative and countywide candidates in the 2021 primary,  In the old days, up into the 1970s, generations of incumbents found their political fates tied to the candidate their county chairman endorsed for governor.

Murphy can survive a primary.  His own 2017 election shows that organization lines are not what they used to be: with endorsements from all 21 county Democratic organizations, he won just 49% of the vote.  

His greater danger is the other faction of the New Jersey Democratic Party taking a walk in the general election.

Republicans have elected and re-elected a governor three three times since Democrats Brendan Byrne won a second term in 1977.

The challenge for Republicans — beyond being outnumbered by a million voters by the next election — is coming up with a candidate who can forge a coalition with the anti-Murphy Democrats.  

Republicans have been known to eat their young too.

One reality of the Murphy vs. Norcross war is that real voters likely don’t know and don’t understand about the details of the Economic Development Authority tax incentives.

In February, a Monmouth University Poll showed that 59% of New Jerseyans had no heard about legislative hearings on the hiring of Al Alvarez.  Just 41% said they knew about the scandal.

The Alvarez issue can be easily explained in three words: Boy Rapes Girl — even though two prosecutors who investigated the sexual assault allegations never charged Alvarez.

The EDA tax credits are far more complicated and exponentially more boring.

Those numbers also point to a decline in the influence of newspapers on public opinion. Unless Brian Thompson suddenly starts covering the EDA every day and Rachel Maddow starts devoting time to the issue, real voters don’t seem poised to take an interest in the matter.  

Right now, tax incentives is a fight that’s being played out inside the bubble of New Jersey political insiders and reporters who appear shocked to learn that there’s gambling going on here.

That plays to the advantage of Norcross, whose name never appears on a ballot.  He seems ready to get under Murphy’s skin as much — or more — than he has to to make his point.

On the horizon

The current toxic political environment is expected to get worse before it gets better — if it ever does.  Here’s what’s coming up:

* Investigations: Murphy’s EDA Task Force will continue to hold hearings and refer individuals or companies to the attorney general for possible prosecution.  Now the Senate and Assembly have formed their own investigatory panels to look at the EDA. The State Commission of Investigation is reportedly looking at the hiring practices of Murphy ally Lizette Delgado-Polanco at the Schools Development Corporation.  And the Legislature’s Select Committee on Oversight may soon release their final report on the Alvarez matter.

* Budget: While fighting a war, the Democratic governor and the Democratic-controlled Legislature must also pass a budget in seven weeks, or risk a government shutdown that will garner more public attention than Alvarez and the EDA.

* Democratic State Chairman: The vote between incumbent John Currie and his challenger, Essex County Democratic chairman LeRoy Jones, Jr. isn’t until the end of the year, but the contest looms large in every discussion regarding the current intra-party fight.  This is a must-win for both sides.

Democratic infighting is nothing new

Intra-party civil wars in New Jersey go back to the beginning of the American democracy, so there’s no reason to thing this kind of fight wasn’t going to happen.

* In 1969, Jersey City Mayor John V. Kenny channeled his personal animosity toward former Gov. Robert Meyner by delivering Hudson County to Republican gubernatorial candidate William Cahill.

* Gov. Brendan Byrne faced 10 challengers in the 1977 Democratic gubernatorial primary — including two congressmen and a member of his own cabinet — and won renomination with just 30% of the vote.

* In 1999, seven South Jerseys Democrats bolted the Assembly Democratic Caucus in a feud with Minority Leader Joe Doria.  The leader of the revolt, Joe Roberts, became Democratic state chairman in 2001 and helped take the speakership from Doria and give it to Albio Sires.

* Gov. Jon Corzine lost re-election in 2009 amidst a growing lack of enthusiasm for him from key Democrats — many of whom had developed a relationship with the Republican challenger, Chris Christie.

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