Take it from Steve Kornacki: New Jersey’s politics are unique.
In a virtual conversation with Rowan University’s Ben Dworkin, the NBC and MSNBC national political correspondent said the Garden State’s political landscape dwarfed even those of similarly old states.
“I grew up, as I said, in Massachusetts, and of course you hear all the stories growing up there about what a rich political tradition Massachusetts, particularly Boston, has. I grew up on that,” he said. “I thought I knew something about a rich, colorful political culture, and I knew nothing about it until I got to New Jersey.”
The key difference, he said, comes from control over contracts awarded by local and county officials.
The money those contracts provide enables the state’s powerbrokers, even at the local and county level. It also fosters the machine politics New Jersey is known for, Kornacki said.
“They’re relics in every other state, and I think they’re on the decline long-term in New Jersey, but you have these still city, county, local political machines that exist, but they’re obsolete elsewhere,” he said. “Where you have strong political machines, you have a whole hierarchy that people in the political world have to navigate, have to deal with. It’s just an element that does not exist in other states.”
Those machines have been the target of progressives on the Democratic side. They’ve so far seen few successes, and New Jersey’s party-line ballot design, which allows county party leaders to lend favored candidates an advantage, have shown little signs of ebbing.
But such challenges mean Democrats are running in primaries where they aren’t just going through the motions.
Put another way, it saves them money and avoids grueling primaries. In 2005’s Democratic primaries, powerbrokers and party leaders chose Jon Corzine to run for governor over acting-Gov. Dick Codey and Rep. Rob Andrews.
“Where I grew up and most other states, that would be solved by having a primary. The candidates would run and put ads on television,” Kornacki said. “In New Jersey and on the Democratic side of New Jersey, it was answered by how are the different political machines, political bosses, key regional political leaders, how are they going to line up? How are they going to negotiate behind the scenes?”
Gov. Phil Murphy won 2017’s nomination in much the same way. In February, he declined to say whether organizational lines should be eliminated, as his progressive backers want.
Full disclosure: The New Jersey Globe is an unabashed, enthusiastic, devoted fan of Steve Kornacki. He worked for Globe editor David Wildstein at PoliticsNJ.com from 2002 to 2006, and reporter Nikita Biryukov worked as a production intern at MSNBC Live with Steve Kornacki during the 2016 general election, and then as a digital reporting intern at NBC News in 2017.