President Donald Trump and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie won't be on the ballot in New Jersey this fall, but the newly minted Democratic and Republican nominees for governor and their parties are transforming one of only two statewide gubernatorial contests in the country into a race about the unpopular leaders.
Democrats nominated wealthy former Goldman Sachs executive and one-time diplomat Phil Murphy and Republicans picked Christie's top deputy, Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, in New Jersey's primary Tuesday, the only statewide contest this year along with Virginia, which goes to the polls next Tuesday.
Murphy and national Democrats immediately pitched him as a bulwark against Trump and promised a departure from Christie, while Guadagno and national Republicans have come out aggressively against Murphy, bashing him for his time as an executive with Goldman Sachs and comparing him with unpopular Democratic former Gov. Jon Corzine, a Goldman alum Christie defeated in 2009.
"The race will be a proving ground for Democrats to test their anti-Trump message before the midterm elections," said Montclair State University political science professor Brigid Harrison. "(It's also) a microcosm of the struggle within the (Republican) party between forces loyal to President Trump and those who would chart a different more moderate course."
New Jersey and Virginia's elections come as national Democrats hope to deliver a blow to Trump ahead of the 2018 midterm elections when the U.S. House and a third of the Senate will be on the ballot. The contest also gives Republicans an opportunity to carve out how to compete during the Trump era.
Democrats are favored in New Jersey's 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.
"We will stand up to this president with a steel backbone," Murphy said. "We are better than Donald Trump, and we are better than Chris Christie."
In Virginia, most of the attention has focused on the close Democratic primary between Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam and former Congressman Tom Perriello. Northam is a more traditional candidate, who stresses his pragmatic approach. Perriello is running a more liberal campaign, promising to raise taxes on the wealthy to pay for social programs to help the poor and middle class. He's received endorsements from U.S. Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren and large donations from billionaire super donors George Soros and Donald Sussman.
Former Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie is favored to win the GOP primary over a Trump's former state campaign chairman.
In New Jersey, Guadagno has to contend with Christie's unpopularity going back to the George Washington Bridge lane-closing scandal and his failed presidential run. She has already begun contrasting herself with the twice-elected, term-limited incumbent. Trump lost in New Jersey in 2016 and has a low approval rating with most voters.
"I'm running for governor based on my values, based on my record, based on my principles," Guadagno said. "My principles are Main Street principles."
Christie remained neutral during the campaign but said Tuesday that he voted for Guadagno. He has said he would campaign if asked, but it's unclear whether his assistance would help or hurt, since about three-quarters of voters disapprove of his job performance.
"Kim, we need a leader who will fight back against Goldman Sachs Democrats and I'm confident you are the person to do that," Christie said in a statement.
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.
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