The Sanders Message Faces Another Test in New Jersey

A candidate with ties to the senator is up against a heavy establishment favorite next year for the Democratic nomination for governor.

New Jersey Assemblyman John Wisniewski
AP Photo/Mel Evans
Add to Briefcase
Zach C. Cohen
Dec. 6, 2016, 8 p.m.

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.


Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.