A longtime legislator, calling for an end to special interest and Wall Street control of politics and the economy, is running in a Democratic primary against an establishment favorite with support from party leaders.
Echoes of the Bernie Sanders-Hillary Clinton presidential primary are obvious in the Democratic race to replace New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. But this blue-state battle might be even more challenging for Sanders’s brand of progressive politics thanks to the state’s unique economy, geography, and primary-balloting process.
State Assemblyman John Wisniewski, Sanders’s former campaign chairman in the Garden State, launched his bid for governor late last month, telling a crowd of 150, “The deck is stacked … by machine politics and big-money special interests.” He faces, among others, Phil Murphy, a former banking executive and ambassador to Germany.
“We’re talking about a difference in a value system,” Wisniewski said in an interview last week, before criticizing Murphy, a Goldman Sachs alum, for seeding his campaign with $10 million.
But Sanders’s message didn’t connect by the time of the June presidential primary. Sanders won just two of the state’s 21 counties, while Clinton won nearly two-thirds of the vote, with her top four counties by raw vote coming in the shadow of Wall Street.
Unlike in the middle of the country, said Ben Dworkin, a political-science professor at Rider University, it’s harder to make Wall Street the “boogeyman” in northern New Jersey, where a significant portion of the population relies on it “for their income, either because they work there or they’re engaged with it in some way.”
Murphy spokesman Derek Roseman played up Murphy’s status as a first-time candidate, calling him “an outsider who has spent the better part of the last decade serving our nation abroad” and referring to Wisniewski as “the consummate Trenton insider.”
“The choice for Democrats next June cannot be more stark,” Roseman said in an email.
Longtime New Jersey political operatives have signed up with Murphy, including Brendan Gill, Steve Demicco, Brad Lawrence, and Julie Roginsky. Many of them worked for another former Goldman Sachs executive in New Jersey Democratic politics: former Gov. Jon Corzine.
While an anti-Wall Street message plays differently there, Murphy has still downplayed comparisons with Corzine and hasn’t placed that part of his background at the forefront of his campaign message, as Corzine did at the start of his political career. When Corzine first ran for Senate (with the help of Tad Devine, a consultant for both Wisniewski and Sanders), he ran TV ads proclaiming his creation of “700,000 New Jersey company jobs” from his perch at one of “the world’s most important investment firms.”
“I cannot see them just duplicating the Corzine campaign of 2000. … It’s a different America. It’s a different New Jersey,” Dworkin said.
The Sanders comparison for Wisniewski similarly goes deeper than the candidate. He hired the same consulting team that led Sanders’s underdog presidential campaign, including Devine-Mulvey-Longabaugh, Revolution Messaging, and Tulchin Research. Wisniewski campaign manager Robert Becker also organized the Vermont senator’s successful campaigns in Iowa and Michigan.
“They did a very good job. … That’s the kind of team I’d like to have on my side,” Wisniewski said.
Sanders hasn’t endorsed Wisniewski yet, but he said at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast last month that he “may very well” do so. Wisniewski said last week he plans to talk to Sanders “soon” about the race.
Pollster Ben Tulchin said the candidates’ shared worldview “will resonate with voters, particularly the groups Bernie did so well with, younger voters in particular.” And after being active in endorsing candidates up and down the ballot in 2016, Tulchin said this race will be “a good opportunity for Bernie if he wants to get involved.”
Murphy boasts support in the populous New York City area, where county chairmen endorsed Murphy in September shortly after Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop unexpectedly dropped out of the race.
The multi-millionaire’s cause is bolstered there with the resources to get on the Big Apple’s expensive airwaves ahead of both the primary and general election. Meanwhile, Wisniewski said he is confident public financing, should he qualify, would allow him to keep up with Murphy in paid media.
Murphy has also cleared political hurdles in South Jersey. State Senate President Stephen Sweeney’s exit from the race led Murphy to secure the support of county leaders in the Philadelphia and Atlantic City suburbs. One of those counties, Camden, is the home base of political power broker George Norcross.
That support goes further than endorsements elsewhere. Party leaders wield incredible influence in assigning favorable ballot placement alongside the party’s endorsed candidates for other offices, a potentially significant advantage for Murphy, a former Democratic National Committee finance chair.
“If you think the superdelegate process hampered Bernie Sanders, that has nothing on the county organization process in New Jersey state primaries,” said Patrick Murray, the director of the Monmouth University poll.
Correction: The article originally misstated the timing of New Jersey’s presidential primary. It was in June.