The special elections of 2017, as well as the primary contests for the gubernatorial elections that will be held in November, have been revelatory on several different levels. They have been referendums on President Donald Trump, and on whether the Democrats’ message (or lack thereof) is reaching voters. They have shown the outsized influence of super PACs, and the importance of traditional party organs in supporting candidates. Above all else, however, they have been battlegrounds for the internecine brawls that have overtaken both parties.
But in New Jersey, the brawling has been notably quiet. The race for governor between Republican Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno and Phil Murphy, a Democrat and former Goldman Sachs executive who served as former President Barack Obama’s ambassador to Germany, has been overshadowed by Governor Chris Christie’s incredible unpopularity and singular ability to make himself the center of gravity in New Jersey politics. Christie has proven to be an albatross for Guadagno, who was trailing by 27 points in a poll released on July 12.
However, some intrigue did enter the race last week, when the Star Ledger reported that Guadagno’s struggles might not entirely be of Christie’s making. The Republican National Committee and the Republican Governors Association were largely staying out of the race, as were key donors, over Guadagno’s criticisms of Trump. The RNC “views the lieutenant governor as someone who hasn’t been loyal to the president and officials there see her race as a losing cause,” two sources told the Star Ledger. After the notorious Access Hollywood tape dropped last fall, showing Trump bragging about assaulting women, Guadagno tweeted, “No apology can excuse away Mr. Trump’s reprehensible comments degrading women. We’re raising my 3 boys to be better than that.”
Former New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman backed this version of events, telling the Star Ledger that the RNC “was reluctant to back the campaign in the way one would have expected. The implication was, ‘Well you were not a Trump supporter in the primary, and so don’t expect much money.’”
If true, this would be chilling. The Republican Party has happily followed Trump down every ignoble path—witness its craven approach to health care reform and the Russia scandal, to name just two prominent examples—but individual lawmakers have tried, at least publicly, to put some daylight between themselves and the president. Ostracizing a candidate for disloyalty would all but guarantee that the remaining distinctions between Trumpism and the GOP were erased.
But there’s no reason to believe that Guadagno’s criticism of Trump played a significant role in the decision for key groups and donors to retreat from New Jersey. After all, practically every Republican politician criticized the Access Hollywood tape, and the RNC, which exists to elect Republican politicians, can’t punish all of them. One of those was Ed Gillespie, the Republican nominee for governor in Virginia, which is also holding a gubernatorial election in 2017. Gillespie criticized Trump in October of last year and reiterated those criticisms in April. But Gillespie has raised millions of dollars—he currently has $3 million on hand—and has the backing of both the RNC and the RGA. He’s tied with Democrat Ralph Northam, who is considered the favorite. (The Guadagno campaign did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)
Guadagno, by contrast, is struggling to raise money and support simply because she’s struggling. “Guadagno’s uphill battle to raise money and be competitive in New Jersey has less to do with her distancing herself from Donald Trump than it does with the fact that the polls show her way behind,” Benjamin Dworkin, the director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics, told me.
Determining the impact of money in politics is often a chicken-or-the-egg question, but in New Jersey it’s clear the donors and groups are staying away because the deck is stacked against Guadagno. First, she has to contend with not one, but two drags: Chris Christie, the most unpopular governor in the country and in New Jersey history, and Trump, who is underwater in the state.
Drawing distinctions between yourself and one unpopular politician is difficult enough, as Gillespie’s hot-and-cold relationship with Trump will testify. But it’s extremely difficult to do it with two hated politicians, especially when both of those politicians excel at generating headlines. That Guadagno shares a party affiliation with the sitting governor—which Gillespie does not—and sitting president only makes her path to victory more difficult.
But even if she could magically make these two garbage men disappear, Guadagno still wouldn’t be favored to win. “New Jersey is a Democratic state,” John Weingart, associate director of the Eagleton Institute for Politics at Rutgers University, told me. “The last time we elected a Republican to the U.S. Senate was 1972 and the last time we voted for a Republican president was 1988. We have had alternating parties for governor—narrowly electing Republicans roughly every eight years. But just on that basis, leaving personalities out of it completely, it’s clear that the Democrat would be the favorite to become governor.”
New Jersey is also becoming an even safer state for Democrats. “We were a blue state in 2007, and we have become much bluer in 2017,” Dworkin said. “In 2007, there were one million registered Democrats in New Jersey, but in 2017 there are two million registered Democrats in the state. Republicans, meanwhile, have gone from about 800,000 to 1.2 million, but we’re talking about a 200,000-person registration advantage growing to an 800,000 registration advantage.”
New Jersey is one of the few states in which the Democratic Party controls both houses of the state legislature, which likely won’t change in November—removing yet another incentive for money to flow into the state.
All of these factors have contributed to the situation that Guadagno finds herself in. She’s losing by nearly 30 points with no conceivable path to victory, and without a path to victory she doesn’t have a path to the millions of dollars being held by the RNC and wealthy donors. Blaming Trump is a clever trick, a way of wiggling out of his sizable shadow. But in the end she is running for governor in one of the few states that looks like a sure thing for Democrats.