The Democratic and Republican candidates for New Jersey governor don’t agree on much, but they do have one thing in common: Outgoing Gov. Chris Christie is their favorite target.
The GOP governor’s approval ratings have plummeted to historic lows, with just 20 percent of voters approving of Christie in a March poll. Those numbers, which make Christie the least popular governor in the country, have turned him into the ideal punching bag for the candidates seeking their party’s nomination in Tuesday’s gubernatorial primaries.
Christie’s dismal approval rating represents a challenge for Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, the GOP front-runner. She has to distance herself from Christie while still touting her work as his second-in-command for the past seven years.
“[Christie] is going to be the target going into the general election, and anyone associated or affiliated with him is obviously the target,” said Carl Golden, a veteran New Jersey GOP strategist. “His record is going to become [Guadagno’s] record, fairly or unfairly.”
Since launching her bid in mid-January, Guadagno, a former county sheriff and federal prosecutor, has kept Christie at arm’s length, but she also hasn’t shied away from challenging him on policy or criticizing the national profile that takes him away from the state.
Without mentioning Christie by name, Guadagno made it clear from the start of the race that she would frequently use him as a foil in her gubernatorial campaign.
In her announcement speech, Guadagno jabbed Christie’s penchant for using a New Jersey State Police helicopter to travel to campaign events during his presidential campaign.
“I have traveled, as you know, tens of thousands of miles inside of a car that you paid for,” Guadagno said. “Not in a helicopter.”
Guadagno was highly critical of Christie’s proposed $300 million statehouse renovation, saying the state can’t afford a “Palace of Versailles.” And she has vocally opposed Christie’s decision to raise the gas tax.
But in the months since her campaign launch, Guadagno has gone even further to define herself as separate from Christie, claiming that no one is “more different from Chris Christie than his lieutenant governor.”
“We’re completely different in style,” Guadagno told The Associated Press in February. “Plainly, we’re completely different [in] how we approach problems in New Jersey.”
She’s also taken shots at his dashed presidential ambitions.
“I am not looking for the next job, unlike others,” she said in a May interview with NJ Advance Media, clarifying later that she was referring to Christie.
“I think [voters are] mad at him for leaving them. But I’m running on my record. I think my record is pretty good,” she continued.
Besides distancing herself from Christie, Guadagno has campaigned on cutting property taxes and auditing the state government to help pay for it.
Guadagno is favored to win the GOP nomination, with polls giving her a double-digit lead against her main opponent, state Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli. Three other GOP candidates are running in the primary.
But those same polls found most voters remain undecided and Guadagno still has relatively low name recognition despite serving in a top statewide post.
“[Christie] casts a long shadow in the state, and the shadow of that blocks her sunlight,” said Ross Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers University.
But for Ciattarelli, criticizing Christie is nothing new.
In 2015, he was one of three Republicans to vote to override Christie’s veto of two gun control bills. And while Christie was campaigning for then-Republican presidential candidate Donald TrumpDonald TrumpIt’s wise for Congress to conduct a debate on Saudi gun sales before the deal is done Dem: Trump’s response to London attack ‘inappropriate for a toddler’ Dems and GOP both bash Christie in NJ governor race MORE after dropping out of the 2016 race, Ciattarelli called on the New Jersey governor to either spend more time in the state or resign.
“He’s been very articulate in his opposition to the governor and chastising [Guadagno] for kind of coming late to that party,” said Brigid Callahan Harrison, a political science professor at Montclair State University.
Ciattarelli’s campaign ads have sought to tie Guadagno to Christie. But while he recently picked up a handful of newspaper endorsements, political observers say Ciattarelli’s newfound momentum likely came too late in the game.
Christie has largely stayed silent on the race to replace him, and his role as head of the state GOP has kept him from endorsing a successor. But he’s occasionally weighed in on Guadagno, with both praise and criticism of his lieutenant governor.
The Democratic primary field looks more settled. Phil Murphy, a former Goldman Sachs executive and U.S. ambassador to Germany in the Obama administration, is seen as the clear front-runner.
Murphy’s campaign, which he backed with significant personal contributions, has earned some high-profile support. Former Vice President Gore endorsed Murphy, and former Vice President Biden campaigned for him.
Murphy has criticized Christie’s handling of transportation, among other issues. Christie launched some attacks of his own Friday, calling Murphy a “fraud” who has “bought” the election with his money. Christie also questioned whether Murphy’s ambassadorship qualifies him to be governor.
Three other Democrats — former Treasury official Jim Johnson, state Sen. Ray Lesniak and state Assemblyman John Wisniewski — are also running.
But Murphy is looking past the primary, especially after launching an ad aimed at Trump.
Political observers from both parties say whoever wins the GOP nomination will face an uphill battle in the general election.
Trump lost New Jersey by 14 points in the general election, and Christie’s approval ratings continue to sink to new lows. A Quinnipiac University poll from February found him tied as the least popular governor in New Jersey history.
Along with a governor’s race in Virginia, the New Jersey race represents one of the two big electoral prizes in 2017. GOP candidates lag in general election polls in both states, suggesting that two high-profile defeats could be on the calendar for Republicans.
It’s clear that New Jersey Democrats see the momentum on their side. In a surprising move, Murphy announced he’d accept public funding if he wins the nomination, which would cap his spending at $13.8 million.
“That tells me he feels pretty confident that his spending is going to be sufficient because he has enough strategy going in that he doesn’t have to worry about it,” Golden said.