One of the Democrats running to become the next governor of New Jersey is a former federal prosecutor who went after organized crime rings, an undersecretary of the Treasury in the Clinton administration who scrutinized the finances of international drug cartels, and a reformer who has led efforts to improve community relations with police in his post-governmental career. He boasts a rags-to-riches story as the second member of his family to graduate from college. Borrowing from President Obama’s campaign playbook, he is casting himself as an African-American who can heal the divisions in a politically-polarized state.
No one is giving Jim Johnson, 55, much of a chance against front-running Phil Murphy, 59, the wealthy Goldman Sachs executive who later became Ambassador to Germany. It’s hard to even find much coverage of Johnson’s candidacy in the New Jersey press. But anyone who understands the importance of a compelling narrative in politics should be paying close attention to his campaign.
The New Jersey governor race—or, at least the Democratic primary—is shaping up as an early test of the influence of money and party bosses. New Jersey is one of the few remaining states where under-the-radar insiders wield tremendous influence. Party leaders can funnel money to their preferred candidates, dissuade interest groups from defying the party line, and even denote the official party preference on ballots. In the governor race, that means New Jersey Democrats could see Murphy’s name in huge typeface on the ballot as the party-backed candidate, with Johnson (and other primary candidates) demoted to fine print.
At a time when the energy in the Democratic Party is against Wall Street billionaires, it’s a bit counterintuitive that a candidate in 2017 is favored mainly because of his eye-popping wealth. But with television ads costing a fortune to air across the state, self-funded candidates have an automatic leg up over the competition. Former Gov. Jon Corzine, another Goldman Sachs alum, pumped over $28 million of his own money into a losing reelection campaign in 2009. Murphy brought in $7.3 million of income last year alone, according to financial disclosures, and loaned his campaign $10 million in startup money. Johnson is starting his fundraising from scratch.
But if there was one lesson of the 2016 presidential campaign, it was that money is only as effective as the candidate’s message. Clinton outspent Trump significantly in the battleground states to no avail. Insurgent candidates now have effective tools to overcome a financial deficit, including digital advertising that generates viral buzz and organic excitement from online social networks.
“In the last year, if you haven’t been surprised with what’s happened with politics, you haven’t been paying attention,” Johnson told National Journal. “I believe in the politics of conviction, not calculation. I have lived my life building unlikely coalitions. I believe not only is bridge-building possible but it’s all about who I am. The message of change that I bring, and track record of change that I have will resonate across the campaign.”
Johnson’s campaign team is familiar with using an untraditional playbook to propel underdog candidates. His media strategist John Del Cecato brainstormed the memorable ad for New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio—featuring his Afro-wearing son, Dante—that fueled his candidacy. Del Cecato told National Journal to expect a similar type of unconventional ad campaign to introduce Johnson to voters. Another campaign adviser, Doug Rubin, helped elect Deval Patrick as the first African-American governor of Massachusetts. Like Johnson, Patrick was a Harvard Law School graduate with no political experience prior to running — and was initially viewed as a long-shot. He ended up winning his primary in a landslide against the state’s attorney general and a free-spending venture capitalist.
Johnson will be using a strategy that has been a time-tested formula for Democratic underdogs: Win over the substantial African-American vote in a diverse state, while exciting white progressives with a story that inspires enthusiasm. His campaign is also betting on the theory (championed by David Axelrod) that voters are looking for a remedy, not a replica from the past. Johnson’s wonky nature, soft-spoken demeanor, and desire for consensus couldn’t be more of a contrast from outgoing Gov. Chris Christie.
Out of office, President Obama has pledged his focus will be on rebuilding the Democratic party, helping to build a bench of talented officeholders. He’s got an opportunity to weigh in right away in a race pitting one of his top donors against someone whose rhetoric is reminiscent of his own idealistic vision of the past. If the New Jersey governor race was decided by résumés, Johnson would be considered a top contender. But the Democratic establishment’s rallying behind Murphy is proof positive that money, not message, often makes the party go round.
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