TRENTON, N.J. – The candidates running to replace New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie fanned out across the state Tuesday as voters made their selections in the first statewide primary races since Republican President Donald Trump took office.
A former Wall Street executive and Christie’s second-in-command are the leading candidates, and Tuesday’s winners will compete in the Nov. 7 general election. It will be one of two statewide gubernatorial contests in the country this year, along with Virginia.
The candidates are little known, even in New Jersey, and are competing as Trump administration developments swamp headlines, spurring the Democratic candidates to lash out at the president and wedging Republicans between an unpopular White House and a GOP governor whom most voters disapprove of.
Republican Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, who was twice elected on the ticket with the term-limited governor, has gone to great lengths to try to highlight their differences. Christie, who remained neutral during the campaign, said Tuesday that he voted for Guadagno.
“I’ve worked with her for eight years and I believe that she’s the best person in the Republican primary to represent the party in the fall and to retain the governorship,” Christie told reporters. “Based upon our personal relationship, our professional relationship and my view of who is the best qualified person to succeed me, I pushed the button for her this morning.”
Guadagno chuckled as she was met by photographers after casting her ballot Tuesday in Monmouth Beach, saying she was “humbled” and she encouraged her supporters to vote.
Also seeking the Republican nomination were Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli, Nutley Commissioner Steve Rogers, Ocean County landscape business owner and actor Joseph “Rudy” Rullo and Atlantic County engineer Hirsh Singh.
On the Democratic side, candidates attacked wealthy front-runner Phil Murphy over his time as an executive at Goldman Sachs. They compared him to members of Trump’s administration who also worked there and former Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine, another Goldman Sachs alumnus who, like Murphy, donated to local New Jersey Democratic parties.
The race to take the New Jersey governor’s office back from a Republican comes as Democrats nationally weigh whether distancing themselves from Wall Street will help them counter Trump and his populist Republican allies. Murphy blurs the line between establishment and insurgent just as Democrats reckon with whether their best candidates should come from within or outside the traditional party structure.
Murphy, a Middletown resident who served as Barack Obama’s ambassador to Germany after chairing the Democratic National Committee’s finance arm, loaned his campaign more than $16 million.
Murphy faces challenges from former Teaneck firefighter Bill Brennan, one-time Clinton administration Treasury official Jim Johnson, state Sen. Ray Lesniak, Assemblyman John Wisniewski and Tenafly Councilman Mark Zinna.
“What most New Jerseyans care about are taxes. They care about reforming the pension. They care about the cost of college,” said Brigid Harrison, a political science professor at Montclair State University. “But what the candidates talk about is Mr. Trump and Mr. Corzine, probably not the concerns of most New Jerseyans.”
When he voted in Sayreville on Tuesday, Wisniewski said half of the electorate was undecided. Johnson and his wife, Nancy, also cast ballots.
Whoever wins on Tuesday, Democrats are favored in the general election, in part because of an 800,000 voter registration advantage and because of political headwinds stemming from Christie’s and Trump’s unpopularity in New Jersey.
Voters also will be picking between Democratic and Republican candidates in eight state Senate and 15 Assembly contests. The full 120-member Legislature is on the ballot in November. Democrats control both chambers.
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