Home>Feature>Stomping Grounds: Norcross vs. Scutari, Election Transparency Act, and Filing Day

Stomping Grounds: Norcross vs. Scutari, Election Transparency Act, and Filing Day

By David Wildstein, March 24 2023 12:49 pm

New Jerseyans aren’t always civil, but it’s still possible for a liberal Democrat and a conservative Republican to have a rational and pleasant conversation about politics in the state.  Dan Bryan is a former senior advisor to Gov. Phil Murphy and is now the owner of his own public affairs firm, and Alex Wilkes is an attorney and former executive director of America Rising PAC who advises Republican candidates in New Jersey and across the nation.  Dan and Alex are both experienced strategists who are currently in the room where high-level decisions are made.  They will get together weekly with New Jersey Globe editor David Wildstein to discuss politics and issues.

Question: It’s a big deal that George Norcross took a very aggressive shot at Senate President Nick Scutari this week.  What does this mean for politics in New Jersey?

Dan Bryan: Michael Aron, Dean Emeritus of the New Jersey Press Corps, has a saying he’s fond of: “New Jersey never disappoints.” I bet he enjoyed this week’s news cycle.

The fundamental dynamics of the Democratic Party in New Jersey shifted in 2017 with the election of Governor Murphy. He refused to treat anywhere other than the Governor’s Office as the center of gravity in state politics, and he’s enjoying a level of extended success unseen since Governor Kean. And those dynamics shifted further with the election of a new Senate President in 2022.

So there’s no denying that there’s been a major paradigm shift in New Jersey over the last decade, but what remains to be seen is how those new power dynamics settle moving forward. Political observers are watching for the 2025 Democratic gubernatorial primary (or, more appropriately, the already-ongoing shadow primary). Who emerges, and how, will tell us more about the future of the State Democratic Party’s new power dynamics.

Alex Wilkes: I think what the exchange signals is the complete collapse of the Democratic Party in a part of the state that they used to take for granted.

Dan isn’t wrong when he says that power has centralized in the Governor’s office, but it has clearly created a bubble of affluent suburbanites with identical “Kindness Matters” signs in their lawns. The Democratic Party (and this Governor, in particular) has sidelined the working-class voters with their agenda of driving up costs and teaching sex-ed to your second grader.

I would’ve thought after years of the Democrats’ disastrous, one-party rule, George Norcross and Steve Sweeney might have been at the acceptance stage of grief, but perhaps their denial ran deeper than we all thought.

Question: The Senate President’s response was just six words long: “I’m sorry he feels that way.”  Was this the correct answer to a direct attack?

Dan: Senate President Scutari may be relatively new to the job, but he’s proving to be a quick study. He has chosen the smart route here: say little, and move forward. He came across as a true professional in his answer, and he didn’t take the bait – not an easy thing to do in politics. By being magnanimous and staying above the fray, he refrains from alienating various members of his caucus.

It’s also important to note what the Senate President was able to achieve through veteran legislative maneuvers this week, as reported by the New Jersey Globe and Politico. By bringing Republican members in on a key piece of legislation, he looked like an established leader, working the room and owning the process. He’s enjoying strong support in his caucus, and his stellar performance across the board this week will only help cement his standing.

Alex: Scutari knows his party has done nothing to win back those voters, so why should he spend the money when he has plenty of vulnerable incumbents to defend across the state who have aided and abetted the Murphy agenda?

Question: The Senate approved the Election Transparency Act that doubles campaign contribution limits, standardizes pay-to-play rules, and creates reporting requirements for independent groups.  Democrats were mostly for it, and Republicans were mostly against it.  Is this an issue that regular voters will care about, or does it just exist inside the bubble of people involved in New Jersey politics?

Alex: To start, if the Democrats pass this monstrosity of a bill, I never – and I mean never – want to hear the left in this state complain about “dark money” ever again. Democrats could never really say that with a straight face here with Phil Murphy’s shady presidential slush fund or the endless spending of the public workers’ unions, but this legislation is downright appalling.

I think in terms of communicating this with voters – who very much do care about the role money plays in politics – the Democrats have made this very simple for us.

First, their provision that allows the Governor to fire the head of ELEC at-will stemmed from a personal dispute the Governor’s office had with him – so much so that he’s now suing to maintain the agency’s independence.

Second, the bill puts a convenient, two-year statute of limitations on complaints just weeks after ELEC announced action against three prominent Democratic party committees from violations that occurred in 2017. This is textbook Trenton greed and hubris that we can easily message to voters.

With the stroke of a pen, Phil Murphy might be able to silence his critics and wipe away the threat of significant fines for his party, but he surely must be considering how this looks to a national audience. Despite his awkward attempts to hack together a progressive folk hero image, he already faces serious vulnerabilities to his left in a Democratic primary. How will liberals in his party react to him signing a bill that obliterates the independence of the state’s campaign finance watchdog? Get the ChapStick ready because that one will hurt on the debate stage.

Dan: The state of campaign finance in this country is a disaster. Since Citizens United, more and more political dollars are going to “dark money” organizations and Super PACs, which don’t limit donors and follow varying degrees of disclosure laws.

So I applaud the legislature for trying to bring some of that money back into the sunlight and for modernizing our current limits, but as we saw when the courts struck down the last “dark money” legislation, there is only so much states can do. The only way to meaningfully address our campaign finance issues is through federal legislation.

But to directly answer your question – it’s difficult for any issue to truly penetrate the public’s consciousness without someone putting serious dollars behind a communications effort. I doubt Republicans will choose to spend their limited resources on this issue.

Question: One of my favorite days of the year is coming up on Monday: Filing Day.  What will you be looking out for?  Where do you think the most competitive primaries will be?

Dan: The pressure is on New Jersey Republicans to field competent, moderate candidates in competitive legislative districts. They have an opportunity to compete in what is usually a low-turnout midterm election. If they can’t field legitimate tickets in competitive districts, something is seriously wrong with the health of the New Jersey Republican party.

Alex: I think that under the leadership of Joe Biden and Phil Murphy, the Democrats are vulnerable across the board.

Voters are unsettled. Bank runs and continued interest rate hikes? We may be heading into economic turmoil that none of us has ever seen in our lifetime. What have Phil Murphy and Democrats in the New Jersey legislature done to ease our concerns? It is more unaffordable than ever to live or run a business here.

So, get ready for a fight across the board from Republicans. And, as 2021 showed us, Democrats should sleep with one eye open until all the write-ins are counted in June!

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