He’s a millionaire politician who worked at Goldman Sachs for 23 years, rising to become a senior director of the firm. He’s compared unfavorably to his party’s last governor, another former Goldman executive whose one term was widely considered a failure. He’s poured at least $10 million of his own money into his gubernatorial campaign. In what The New York Times called “checkbook politics,” he’s contributed more than a million dollars to local Democratic candidates and organizations, paying off in endorsements from all 21 county party committees. And he’s very much a member of the Democratic establishment: He’s a former finance chair of the Democratic National Committee and ambassador to Germany under President Barack Obama. It almost goes without saying that he also has the backing of the state’s two Democratic senators.
Now he’s running against, among other candidates, the former chairman of Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign in his state—and expected to cruise to victory. Sound familiar?
There’s no doubt this year’s Democratic primary for governor of New Jersey is rigged, in a figurative sense, in favor of Phil Murphy. Notwithstanding his background in banking—or perhaps because of it—the 59-year-old Michael Keaton lookalike is running on a strongly progressive platform with the strong support of organized labor. With just over a month before the primary, none of his opponents are within striking distance. And even that Sanders-supporting rival, Assemblyman John Wisniewski, hasn’t historically been quite the progressive he makes himself out to be. If nothing else, Murphy is proof that a Goldman Sachs background need not be disqualifying, if indeed it results in genuine progress for the party and for liberal policymaking.
The national press has largely ignored this race so far, focusing instead on exciting special congressional elections in Kansas, Montana, and Georgia, but the New Jersey campaign is undoubtedly more consequential. With the race to replace Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe, a term-limited Democrat, expected to be a toss up, Murphy represents this year’s best profile chance to flip a seat from red to blue. The process by which he’s seeking the nomination may offend the party’s left wing, but maybe his success isn’t such a bad thing, given the state of the party on every level of government in America.
It’s easy to see why Democrats in particular, and the national media in general, have put so much stock in the aforementioned special elections. In Kansas, civil rights lawyer James Thompson ran a surprisingly competitive race with Republican Ron Estes, who now represents the district previously held by CIA Director Mike Pompeo. In Montana, a folk musician, Rob Quist, is challenging Republican Greg Gianforte to replace Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. And 30-year-old Jon Ossoff is in the running to win Newt Gingrich’s old seat against former Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel.
All three congressional districts are conservative or conservative-leaning, representing an upset opportunity for neophyte Democratic candidates. Murphy is technically a neophyte, too—he’s never run for office before—but he’s no stranger to politics. Also, unlike these other candidates, he’s favored to win not just the party primary but the general election, as Governor Chris Christie’s massive unpopularity following the “Bridgegate” scandal haunts the Republican candidates. “If there’s one piece of conventional wisdom in New Jersey politics today,” said Ben Dworkin, who directs the Rebovich Institute at Rider University, “it’s that the next governor is going to be a Democrat.”
Murphy’s been the frontrunner since last year, when Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop stunned the political world by opting not to run, and Murphy consolidated Fulop’s support so quickly that state Senate President Steve Sweeney stayed out, too. Murphy still has five opponents, but even Wisniewski, his closest rival, is 17 points behind, according to a Quinnipiac University poll released last month. They don’t have much time to close the gap, as debates begin in May and the primary is on June 6, though Quinnipiac did find that 57 percent of voters remain undecided.
“If history is any guide,” Dworkin said, “Phil Murphy should win this comfortably.” Brigid Callahan Harrison, a Montclair State University professor and president of the New Jersey Political Science Association, described the primary race as “essentially over.” “There’s just a feeling that the entire race is Phil Murphy’s to lose,” said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute. “You can even get that from Republicans off the record here in New Jersey.”
Murphy smartly consolidated support from the state’s formidable Democratic machine. “New Jersey is structurally designed to prevent competitive campaigns,” Murray said. “The 21 county lines are almost like building a fortress around [Murphy], and any of these attacks bounce off.” Murphy’s money made the difference, allowing him to court county committee members and interest-group leaders early on. “What he was able to do, being independently wealthy, was to spend all day, everyday basically having breakfast and lunch with all those key leaders in the party,” Murray said. (Like many independently wealthy candidates before him, Murphy has also said he won’t be beholden to special interests.)
Murphy’s rivals have hammered him for this, saying he’s trying to buy the race. “Voters should not choose someone who has bought the support of Democratic leaders,” Ray Lesniak, a state senator and gubernatorial candidate, told me. “Voters should decide on principles, not on the basis of someone spending tens of millions of dollars to get their attention.”
Wisniewski, who polled highest of Murphy’s rivals, is running to the left of Murphy. He supports single-payer healthcare, while Murphy, who says he supports single-payer in principle, is focused on defending the Affordable Care Act. Wisniewski supports a Sanders-style plan for free college, while Murphy is running on affordability. But that hasn’t won Wisniewski much support from the Sanders camp. The Vermont senator’s former campaign manager, Jeff Weaver, is backing Wisniewski while Sanders’s son Levi is backing Murphy. But the elder Sanders isn’t endorsing in the governor’s race. “I want to thank John Wisniewski for the strong support he gave me during the Democratic presidential primary,” he said in a January statement, according to Politico. “He played a great role in that race, and I am confident he would make an excellent governor for New Jersey.” But Sanders added that “the primary in New Jersey is hotly contested and there are those who supported me in 2016 who are supporting John and others who are supporting his opponent. For that reason alone, I have not endorsed in the New Jersey governor’s race.”
There’s also the question of whether Wisniewski’s Sanders-style progressivism is authentic. Jennifer Holdsworth, Hillary Clinton’s New Jersey state director last year, said Wisniewski’s “sudden, opportunistic jerk to the left, supporting Senator Sanders, was something a lot of people viewed as disingenuous.” Holdsworth gives Wisniewski credit for leading the “Bridgegate” investigation, but said his 21-year record as a lawmaker doesn’t show he’s any more progressive than Murphy. “We’ll let the voters examine what he’s done on single-payer, which is nothing,” Murphy adviser Julie Roginsky told me.
Greg Minchak, a Wisniewski spokesman, acknowledged that his boss hadn’t introduced single-payer legislation at the statehouse, but said Wisniewski was in the process of drafting a bill. “John has a long track record of being on the correct side of issues,” Minchak said. “The only thing opportunistic is that people are trying to make hay of John and his connection to Bernie Sanders,” which Minchak reiterated wasn’t popular with the Democratic establishment. “People across this country, particularly in New Jersey, are sick of business as usual,” he said. “They’re tired of transactional politics. They’re tired of party bosses telling them who to vote for.”
But Murphy is hardly business as usual. As even The Nation, in a February article that largely lionized Wisniewski, acknowledged, “Murphy isn’t running as a centrist corporate Democrat, but rather as a progressive champion making a strong appeal to labor. Despite his more than two decades on Wall Street, he is quick to acknowledge that the financial sector is underregulated, that the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act was a mistake, and that Wall Street should have been held accountable for the 2008 meltdown.” The magazine further reported that “Murphy agrees with Wisniewski on a wide range of issues, including the need for a $15-an-hour minimum wage, a more progressive tax system, stronger environmental protections, and more effective gun control.”
Murphy has garnered a positive response from many Jersey Democrats for his innovative proposal to create a state-owned public bank, which, he told The Nation, would be explicitly modeled on the century-old Bank of North Dakota. “It’ll be a people’s bank,” he said. “Our model would make student loans at reasonable rates, small-scale infrastructure loans working with community banks, and small-business loans.”
The New Jersey election may well be the most important one for the Democratic Party this year. If Murphy wins, he would be able to enact his agenda immediately, as Democrats control the state legislature. For all the excitement surrounding the hotly contested Virginia gubernatorial race, where Ralph Northam and Tom Perriello are battling for the Democratic nomination, the state’s legislature is controlled by the GOP: Either of them would need to work with Republicans, as McAuliffe has. Virginia may attract more attention as a swing state—one that’s conveniently located for the D.C. press corps—but a unified Democratic government in New Jersey would join New York and California as the vanguard of the Trump resistance.
There’s plenty to recommend Murphy as a retail politician, too. He answers questions about his Wall Street ties by talking up his humble roots. The Times observed that he “considered pursuing a career in musical theater, oozes affability, remembers the tiniest details about people he has met and quickly owns up to his missteps.” “Murphy has canvassed the state. He shake hands with everybody,” Brent Johnson, a political reporter for NJ Advance Media, told me. “He takes millions of selfies. If he’s not a populist in message, he’s definitely a populist in personality.” Murphy’s election would mean the ability to actually enact progressive policies for a population of nearly 9 million people, and would be a vital step in helping Democrats rebuild after being decimated at the state level. For these reasons, all Democrats—even progressives uneasy with Murphy’s Goldman background—should consider the race, pragmatically, as a golden opportunity to reclaim an electoral and policy territory.
Sanders-style progressive populism never did take hold in New Jersey last year: Hillary Clinton won the primary there by a staggering 26 points. “Part of the context that’s sometimes ignored is that New Jersey is Wall Street’s bedroom community,” said Harrison. “We have a lot of people who work on Wall Street, and working on Wall Street in and of itself isn’t a disqualifier,” added Dworkin. With Democrats as desperate as they are, and Murphy as sufficiently progressive as he is, maybe that’s just as well.