‘Nobody’ in New Jersey Is Paying Attention to Race for Governor

NEWARK — The Democratic candidate for New Jersey governor opened his post-Labor Day blitz accusing his Republican opponent of abdicating her moral leadership. The Republican challenger retorted with accusations of race baiting.

They were the type of hyperbolic accusations often thrown around in a nail-biting, nasty political campaign with such vitriolic attacks feeding a frenetic news cycle hungry for daily conflict and a riled electorate packing town hall meetings and rallies.

This is not that kind of race.

Despite an election that will mark the end of the tumultuous tenure of Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, and the fact that it is only one of two statewide elections this year, the campaign has failed to whet the appetite of voters. Philip D. Murphy, the Democrat, is leading the Republican, Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, by 25 percentage points in a poll by Quinnipiac University released this week.

Much like this year’s primary elections for governor in June, in which turnout hovered around 13 percent of the state’s nearly 5.8 million registered voters, the general election to replace Mr. Christie is being met with similar apathy.

About four in 10 voters do not know who either Mr. Murphy or Ms. Guadagno are, according to another recent poll from Rutgers University.

“It’s a stealth election,” said Maurice Carroll, assistant director of the Quinnipiac poll. “They’re campaigning like crazy but nobody pays attention.”

The recently heated back-and-forth between Mr. Murphy and Ms. Guadagno seemed in part an effort to put the seemingly uninterested electorate on notice: Hey, there’s a governor’s race this fall and, yes, it could get nasty.

It is a race that has struggled to gain even regional attention, despite having story lines that would normally attract the attention of voters and the news media.

It marks both the end and a reckoning of Mr. Christie’s administration and has the potential to shift a governor’s seat from red to blue at a time when 34 statehouses have a Republican at the helm.

It comes at a time when New Jersey residents pay the highest property taxes in the nation and voters have made it the top issue in the November election, according to the Quinnipiac poll.

And it offers a Democratic candidate campaigning on a progressive platform that could be mistaken for the one proposed by Senator Bernie Sanders — a $15 minimum wage, full legalization of marijuana, expanded universal preschool and free community college, among other pledges — and who has close ties to both Hillary Clinton and former President Obama.

Ms. Guadagno is trying to run as a moderate at a time when her party, from the White House to Congress, has shifted further to the right. She has worked hard to distance herself from Mr. Christie, becoming more vocal about her disagreements with the deeply unpopular governor.

After his opening salvo blasting Ms. Guadagno, Mr. Murphy returned to his more familiar campaigning style: caffeinated town hall-style events across the state that feature a 30-minute speed-read stump speech followed by taking questions from the voters surrounding him.

At a recent town hall in Paterson, which drew about 200 people on a windy, rainy night and another 4,200 people calling in, according to the Murphy campaign, Mr. Murphy tried to explain the relatively high interest.

“I hope that’s in part they like what we’re saying and they like me a little bit,” he said. “But lets be honest, I think they’re probably — remember that movie where they’re hanging out the window saying ‘I’m mad as heck and not going to take it anymore?’” Voters, he said, are expressing that sentiment “with Christie-Guadagno for seven and a half years, and now this president.”

As Ms. Guadagno has darted around the state, still focused largely on her plan to relieve the property tax burden on voters, she has also unveiled a new platform: ethics.

Promising to “bring a new era of ethics and transparency to the State House,” Ms. Guadagno, in rolling out her plan recently, used the opportunity to attack Mr. Murphy for not releasing his tax returns and for allowing his running mate, Sheila Oliver, to run for lieutenant governor and an Assembly seat at the same time.

Even as she promises to improve the conduct of elected officials, Ms. Guadagno is still a member of the Christie administration, which was enveloped by the George Washington Bridge scandal that led to a former top aide and an appointee of Mr. Christie being convicted of corruption. Ms. Guadagno was never implicated in the scandal.

The election of the next executive in Trenton, the state capitol, isn’t even the state’s biggest political story — that would be the federal bribery trial of New Jersey’s senior Democratic senator, Robert Menendez, which could have implications that reverberate far beyond the state.

Against that backdrop, both candidates have been campaigning with the larger story lines in mind. Outside the federal courthouse here where Mr. Menendez’s trial is taking place, Ms. Guadagno’s campaign workers handed out packs of M&M’s candies, with a note attached saying “M&M’s: Murphy and Menendez” that attacked Mr. Murphy for refusing to say whether Mr. Menendez should resign if he is convicted. Mr. Menendez has denied any wrongdoing in his case.

Mr. Murphy, as he did throughout the primary, regularly cites Mr. Trump in his stump speeches and at town hall meetings. He promises to stand up to the White House “with a steel backbone” and often tethers Ms. Guadagno to the president, despite her chilly attitude toward Mr. Trump.

And he has offered policy positions related to high-profile national issues, including saying he would “exhaust all legal means, including suing the president” to counter Mr. Trump’s decision to end a program that shielded young undocumented immigrants from deportation and assuring such immigrants that they would have a haven in New Jersey.

He also said that New Jersey would work to meet the climate benchmarks established by the Paris Accord, the global agreement on climate change that Mr. Trump canceled.

On these two issues, Ms. Guadagno actually falls closer to Mr. Murphy than Mr. Trump, though she has been careful not to make it central to her campaigning as Mr. Murphy did. When Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the plan to end the program shielding young undocumented immigrants, Ms. Guadagno said on Twitter, “we can’t split up families,” but followed the White House argument that “Congress must fix this.”

On climate change, Ms. Guadagno has said throughout her career and candidacy that she embraces climate change as a credible threat that needs to be tackled, also pledging to rejoin the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a cap-and-trade agreement for carbon emissions from Northeastern states.

But despite the polls showing a comfortable lead, Mr. Murphy said he is taking nothing for granted and plans to pursue an aggressive campaigning schedule.

“People ask me all the time, ‘Are you in a good place?’” he told the audience in Paterson. “I say, ‘Yeah I think we’re in a good place. I also thought the Brits we’re going to stay in Europe and Hillary Clinton was going to be president of the United States.’”

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