7 things to watch for in today’s primaries

Today is primary day, the first electoral step toward a post-Chris Christie New Jersey.

Former Goldman Sachs executive and U.S. Ambassador to Germany Phil Murphy for the Democrats and Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno for the Republicans have been the front-runners from the beginning. Still, the Republican contest appears to be substantially closer than the Democratic race.

Guadagno’s main rival is Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli. On the Democratic side, Murphy’s top competition is from Jim Johnson, a former U.S. Treasury official during the Clinton administration, Assemblyman John Wisniewski and state Sen. Ray Lesniak of Union County.

Polls are open from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. In addition to the gubernatorial primary, several legislative primaries bear watching.

There are plenty of potential lessons to be learned and tea leaves to be read once the results come in.

Here’s seven things to look for:

1. Christie fatigue

Chris Christie has been the governor for nearly eight years with Guadagno, the state’s first lieutenant governor, by his side. His approval rating went from the 70s in the wake of Hurricane Sandy five year ago to the high teens today, tying him for the lowest approval rating ever recorded for a New Jersey governor.

But there’s one group that hasn’t entirely soured on Christie: Republicans, who polls show are about evenly split on him. But if Ciattarelli scores the upset and wins the GOP nomination, even primary voters — the most committed Republican voters in the state — would have clearly said they want a new direction. If Guadagno wins, as expected, then it’s clear Christie isn’t approaching the same level of toxicity with his base as he is with the rest of the state (though Guadagno has done everything she can over the last six months to distance herself from the governor’s policies).

2. Murphy’s margin

Not many people expect an upset on the Democratic side. Murphy easily weathered attacks on his Goldman Sachs record during two primary debates and the last minute opposition research Johnson dropped on him on Friday wasn’t a blockbuster. Murphy’s slippage in the only recent public opinion poll was within the margin of error, and he still leads his closest challenger, Johnson, by a 3-1 margin.

But if there’s one thing many Democrats are whispering behind the scenes it’s that Murphy’s candidacy — while endorsed by all the party bosses — hasn’t been met with much enthusiasm.

This is certain to be a low-turnout election — as state-level primaries generally are — but if Murphy doesn’t score above 50 percent, it could reinforce the lack of enthusiasm narrative.

3. Where does Jim Johnson go from here?

There’s already plenty of talk about Johnson’s future in the Democratic Party. He seemed to come out of nowhere in January when he raised the $430,000 necessary to qualify for matching funds. And while he’s more than a long shot to win today, a better-than-expected showing all but ensures we haven’t heard the last of him.

Johnson, a Montclair resident, lives in Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen’s congressional district, and Democrats are eagerly lining up to challenge the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee in 2018. But there’s also a chance a Senate seat could open up if Sen. Robert Menendez is convicted at his September corruption trial.

North Jersey Democratic leaders, as well as progressives, probably wouldn’t be thrilled with the idea of replacing Menendez with U.S. Rep. Donald Norcross, the brother of South Jersey power broker George Norcross. An African-American progressive with a deep resume like Johnson’s could make for an attractive alternative.

4. The Republican nominee’s relationship with President Donald Trump

Asked during a debate last month if they’d welcome Trump to New Jersey to campaign for them, Guadagno and Ciattarelli both said — though not exactly enthusiastically — that they would.

“He’s the president of the United States. I’m a citizen first, and I root for our president. And if I think he think can be of assistance and if he thinks he can be of assistance, yes,” Ciattarelli said.

“I don’t think we should argue with that,” Guadagno said. “He is the president of the United States. He’s the duly elected president of the United States, and we should be lucky to have him come into our state.”

Neither candidate really had a choice. The Republican base is with Trump, and you’re not going to win the primary by going against him. But Trump’s approval rating among all New Jersey voters in a March 30 Fairleigh Dickinson University poll was 28 percent. Unless either of the long-shot enthusiastically pro-Trump Republican candidates — Steve Rogers and Joseph “Rudy” Rullo — pull off a massive upset in the primary, expect to hear plenty of critical rhetoric about the president from the nominee, regardless of whether it’s Ciattarelli or Guadagno.

5. Will there be Republican backlash in down-ballot races over the gas tax increase?

There are several down-ballot GOP primaries in which incumbents find themselves challenged — at least in part — because of their support for increasing the gas tax as part of a larger tax overhaul package.

In two legislative districts in northwest New Jersey, Republican incumbents who supported the gas tax face primary challengers who have taken up the anti-tax rallying cry. In District 24 (Morris, Sussex and Warren counties), state Sen. Steve Oroho, the main sponsor of the gas tax, appears safe despite challengers running on the issue. But in District 26 (Essex, Morris and Passaic counties), Assemblywoman Betty Lou DeCroce is locked in a much tougher battle with Morris County Freeholders Hank Lyon and John Cesaro in a race where the gas tax features prominently (The district’s other Assembly member, Jay Webber, looks to be skating through the primary).

In an unusual turn of events, a labor union that spearheaded the push for increasing the gas tax had spent almost $300,000 as of late last month to aid DeCroce and Oroho — the bulk of it going to help DeCroce.

Conversely, state Sen. Sam Thompson is facing a primary challenge in Central Jersey’s 12th District from Old Bridge GOP Chairman Bill Haney. One of Thompson’s running mates has suggested the challenge resulted partly to appease labor groups that had pushed for the gas tax.

6. Portents from Legislative District 40?

This observation is from Monmouth University pollster Patrick Murray:

The district is split between Bergen, Passaic and Essex counties and Morris County. Bergen County GOP Chairman Paul DiGaetano, a former Assembly majority leader, is running against Passaic County Clerk Kristin Corrado, the protégé of Totowa GOP boss Peter Murphy. It’s a nasty race, and Corrado has been dominating in money raised and spent.

With a population of nearly 1 million, Bergen is by far the most populous county in the state. If Republicans ever hope to regain power in New Jersey, they’ll likely have to make gains in Bergen, where Democrats hold every countywide office.

Bergen has more than 124,000 registered Republicans — the second most of any county in the state, after Ocean. But if the party’s own chairman crashes and burns in this primary, it doesn’t speak well to its organization going into a statewide election. Likewise, the primary has highlighted deep divisions within Passaic County Republican politics, where Democrats also dominate. The county’s GOP chairman, John Traier, even went so far as to condemn Corrado’s campaign.

“If the insider slate loses in the biggest Republican county, that means they’re going to be in the wilderness for some time as well,” Murray said.

7. The NJEA’s influence in Legislative District 31

The New Jersey Education Association and the Jersey City Education Association have endorsed Kristen Zadroga-Hart, a Bayonne resident and Jersey City high school teacher, to run an off-the-line challenge against Hudson County Democratic Organization-backed Assemblywoman Angela McKnight over her support for charter schools.

The NJEA,the state’s largest teachers union, is still supporting McKnight’s running mate, Nicholas Chiaravalloti, but its local, the JCEA, rescinded its endorsement of him after the David Tepper-backed Better Education for Kids sent out literature promoting him. The NJEA did not rescind its endorsement, however. Zadroga-Hart is running with fellow teacher Chirstopher Munoz.

Few are predicting an upset, but a closer-than-expected outcome might be a foreboding sign for state Senate President Stephen Sweeney, since the NJEA in a long-simmering feud with him, is backing his Republican opponent in this year’s general election. If the union shows good organizing prowess in Hudson County against a pro-charter school candidate, could it be a sign that its members in Sweeney’s district, 90 miles to the south, will be amped up to oust him?

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