TRENTON, N.J. — It’s a little more than a week before the traditional Labor Day kickoff to campaign season when TV, mail and web ads in the race to succeed Republican Gov. Chris Christie will start to flood New Jersey.
The deluge hasn’t started, but the race between Democrat Phil Murphy and Republican Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno is already offering voters a preview of what to expect.
Murphy, the wealthy former Obama administration ambassador to Germany, reliably links his GOP rival to the unpopular, term-limited incumbent and also, President Donald Trump. Republican nominee Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno regularly promises to lower taxes, bashing Murphy over his promises to raise rates.
Murphy, at recent town hall, put Guadagno in the context of her two terms as Christie’s top-deputy, reminding voters of the brief government shutdown in July and the now-infamous photos of Christie on the beach. “He shut the government down and had the chutzpah to go to the beach by himself,” Murphy said. “It is about our reputation.”
Murphy also criticized Guadagno, who also serves as secretary of state in charge of elections, because she failed to stop the state from turning over voter information to Trump’s elections commission. Guadagno recused herself this year because of her gubernatorial campaign.
Guadagno, who has pledged not to seek a second term if she fails to lower property taxes and has promised not to raise taxes period, is running a web ad that says Murphy broke promises to fully fund education and the public pension because he says he would raise taxes by $1.3 billion, which the lieutenant governor estimates is a low-ball figure.
Experts say the campaign is a matter of emphasis.
For example, Murphy isn’t only talking about Christie and Trump. He has also promised to focus on the economy and invest in transportation and technology sector jobs. Guadagno has jabbed Murphy over his regular Trump barbs, saying he seemed more focused on running for president than New Jersey governor.
But the dynamics are evidence that the candidates rely on both policy and political arguments to get their messages across.
“Murphy’s biggest weakness is the charge he will raise taxes and raise them a lot. Guadagno’s biggest weakness is she is the political partner of the most unpopular governor New Jersey has ever seen,” said Matthew Hale, an associate political science professor at Seton Hall University.
The race has been underway since the June primary, but the candidates and independent groups will begin to spend what is likely to amount to $40 million on this year’s governor’s race.
The campaign comes as the term-limited Christie faces record-low approvals and with Trump, also a Republican, unpopular in a state that he lost to Hillary Clinton last year.
Murphy and the Democrats have the edge in polls and cash. A July Monmouth University poll showed Murphy with a 27-point lead over Guadagno. The poll of 758 registered voters had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.6 percentage points.
Both candidates are taking public financing, with Murphy receiving $3.3 million so far, compared with Guadagno’s roughly $889,000. Public funds are capped at $9.3 million per candidate, who get $2 in public cash for every $1 raised. Spending is limited to $13.8 million.
Guadagno’s allies view her message as a winning one, but her luck — following Christie and with Trump atop the GOP in a Democratic state — as not so great.
“I think it’s pretty clear Phil Murphy is going to be a tax-and-spend governor The question is will that message resonate with voters after eight years of a Republican?” Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick said. “I think politics is cyclical. We tend to go back and forth.”
New Jersey has about 800,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans, though unaffiliated voters are the largest bloc.
Election Day is Nov. 7.