New Jersey Gubernatorial Election: All Eyes on the Garden State

New Jersey Gubernatorial Election: All Eyes on the Garden State

John Weingart
John Weingart, associate director at the Eagleton Institute of Politics and director of the Eagleton Center on the American Governor.

New Jersey voters will go to the polls next month to elect the next governor, replacing two-term Republican Governor Chris Christie who will leave office in January. The new governor will be one of the most powerful in the country since New Jersey’s constitution gives the governor some of the most far-reaching powers in the nation. In the final installment of our series on the New Jersey governor’s race, John Weingart, associate director at the Eagleton Institute of Politics and director of the Eagleton Center on the American Governor, discusses what this election means in New Jersey and beyond.

Are people outside New Jersey watching this race?

The New Jersey gubernatorial race always receives more significant attention because it is one of only two regularly scheduled, statewide elections held just one year after voters have gone to the polls to elect the president. The headlines that emerge from the voting this November will be about the political outcomes in New Jersey and Virginia, states where new governors will be elected because incumbents in both states are barred from seeking another term.

Does this race have national implications?

While the outcome of the election remains in the hands of the voters, at this point the widespread expectation is that Phil Murphy, the Democratic nominee, will be the winner. His strengths include having had a remarkably easy path to the nomination, being extremely well financed and running in a largely Democratic state to succeed a two-term Republican. It seems unlikely that these factors will offer any particular lessons to Democrats in other states. If, however, Kim Guadagno, the Republican nominee, pulls off what would be considered a major upset, the results would reverberate nationally and be examined in minute detail. The ways in which the two governors begin their administrations, however, likely will be closely watched particularly to see how they cooperate or compete with the objectives and policies of President Trump.

Is New Jersey a bellwether for the country?

I don’t think it is. On the other hand, while it is probably just a coincidence, you could say that New Jersey voters have a perverse streak. In the last seven gubernatorial elections  – beginning in 1989, when Democrat Jim Florio was elected through 2013 when we re-elected Republican Chris Christie – we have done the opposite of what the country did the year before.

Do you think the outcome of the New Jersey governor’s race can be used to predict the outcome of the 2018 mid-term elections?

A win by Phil Murphy would drop few tea leaves about 2018, but a Guadagno win could indicate big problems for Democrats nationally. The victories of Republicans Christine Todd Whitman in 1993 and Chris Christie in 2009, at least in retrospect, helped foreshadow the huge losses Democrats would experience nationally in 1994 and 2010.

How significant a factor is Gov. Christie – considered to be one of the most unpopular governors ever elected – in this race?

First, it’s worth remembering that for much of his first term Christie was also one of the most popular governors in New Jersey history. Still, his standing today certainly doesn’t help Guadagno whose only prominence has come from being his understudy for the past eight years. On the other hand, even if Christie was more beloved at the moment, affection for one politician is very difficult to transfer to another. 

More significant to New Jersey voters might be the fact that we seem to not want one party to occupy the governor’s chair for more than eight years. We haven’t allowed that to happen since 1961 when Democrat Richard Hughes was elected to the first of two terms immediately on the heels of the two terms served by Democrat Robert Meyner.

Will the presidency and policies of Donald Trump have an influence on New Jersey voters?

Undoubtedly. But even though I met him a few times long ago, there is nothing about Donald Trump I know how to predict.

To read additional interviews with Rutgers experts on topics important to New Jersey voters, click here.