Rare G.O.P. Species Runs for New Jersey Governor: A Moderate

HACKETTSTOWN, N.J. — The Republican candidate for governor of New Jersey sat on a plush beige couch in the Republican mayor’s condo, surrounded by Republican county officials and politicians, and offered up her plan to stem what is perhaps the state’s most daunting challenge — its deepening property tax crisis.

She adopted it, she said, from an unexpected source.

“This is a page out of the Democratic playbook, it really is,” Kim Guadagno, the lieutenant governor said, noting that the plan came from a proposal in deep-blue Illinois.

With Republicans controlling the White House, both chambers of Congress and having successfully fended off Democratic challenges in four special elections this year, the party is enjoying a dominance not seen for decades and has left the Democrats divided and demoralized. But as they’ve blazed a trail turning many parts of the country red, Republicans in traditionally blue states, like New Jersey, are facing longer odds than ever.

So as Ms. Guadagno begins her campaign in an era of uncompromising parties and demands for ideological purity, with candidates sprinting to the fringes to appeal to the loudest among their base, she is positioning herself as an increasingly rare breed in post-2016 Republican politics: a moderate.

While she toes the Republican line as a fiscal conservative, she embraces climate change as a credible threat that needs to be tackled, favors a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants and supports same-sex marriage and abortion rights — all positions that put her at odds with many leaders in her party, including President Trump.

“I would call myself a libertarian,” she said in an interview, referring to her views on issues like abortion and same-sex marriage. “Stay out of my house; stay out of my home. Don’t tell me what to do with my body and my family. That’s really where I am on it.”

She does, however, wrap some of her policies in more right-leaning Republican rhetoric. While she promotes a path to citizenship and not breaking up families, she also opposes so-called sanctuary cities.

Her platform is clearly aimed at New Jersey’s large concentration of independent voters and is more in sync with Republican politicians like Thomas Kean, a revered former governor, than the man she currently serves, Gov. Chris Christie, who now officially ranks as the most unpopular governor in state history, according to a recent poll by Quinnipiac University.

Ms. Guadagno’s willingness to lean left on social issues represents her best and perhaps only chance at eking out what would be a major political upset. The Quinnipiac poll, which is the first on the governor’s race, found her trailing Philip D. Murphy, the Democratic nominee, by a 2-to-1 margin. Given the intense dislike of Mr. Christie and the fact that registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by about 800,000 voters, Ms. Guadagno faces a difficult political climate in an increasingly blue state.

“Going the moderate side this year, I can see it as an uphill battle,” said Michael Ghassali, 52, the Republican mayor of Montvale who campaigned alongside Ms. Guadagno at a recent charity event for hungry children in East Rutherford. “But I’m in full support of her.”

Despite the unfavorable odds, the Republican Party apparatus is mobilizing behind Ms. Guadagno. Hours after Ms. Guadagno won her primary election, the Republican Governor’s Association began an email blast campaign against Mr. Murphy, labeling him as “D-Goldman Sachs” and calling him an “out of touch political insider.”

Ms. Guadagno has worked the campaign trail with a breezy flair, heavy on both chuckles and whispers as she banters with voters, often punctuating a greeting with laughter.

“My son is Air Force, so I went and grabbed my blue star so you guys know I’m not completely a show up,” she said as she greeted veterans at the charity event.

The star drew a playful jab from a Navy veteran, who joked that her son would enjoy being stationed on aircraft carriers, which he called floating Hilton Hotels.

“Oh, O.K., now we know, the Navy man is in the house,” Ms. Guadagno shot back. She pulled him in closer to whisper in his ear, saying she didn’t want reporters to hear, before pulling back and turning to chat with A. J. Luna, 36, a veteran of the Iraqi conflict who runs the Bergen County Veterans Affairs.

She handed him her business card with her cellphone number scrawled on the back, a gesture she has made thousands of times during her tenure as lieutenant governor. “If you guys need help, I can get to D.M.A.V.A. right away,” she said, referring to the acronym for the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs. “The general and I are like that.”

But her central campaign promise — the one on which she has staked her political future – can’t be solved with a phone call. New Jersey has the highest property taxes in the country, fueling a soaring cost of living that is driving many in its work force out of state.

Ms. Guadagno has promised that she will lower property taxes in her first four years as governor or she won’t run for re-election. It’s the issue she returns to again and again, in media interviews, in condensed stump speeches and in casual asides during otherwise lighthearted banter with voters.

“I’m running to lower your property taxes,” she told 40 or so workers taking a break at Stateline Fabricators, a steel mill just east of the Delaware River. “To make New Jersey more affordable for everybody by focusing on what the No. 1 problem is in New Jersey now, and that is to make sure that you stay in New Jersey; that you don’t go across the river and then come and take the jobs from us here.”

It’s a particularly bold proclamation because, even if she were to win, it is highly unlikely that either chamber of the State Legislature would switch to Republican control.

That reality, she says, is why she’s promoting a plan borrowed from Illinois Democrats — to save homeowners as much as $3,000 per year by capping school property taxes at 5 percent of a family’s annual income with the state making up the difference. The plan would cost the state $1.5 billion and is unusual for a Republican candidate who prefers identifying government waste to spending money.

“I deliberately went out to try to find a program that would be acceptable, in my mind anyway, to the other side,” she said.

She also boasts a unique résumé for the state governor’s chair: As the first lieutenant governor in state history, she’s already had to serve as acting governor for more than than 500 days during Mr. Christie’s two terms. State law requires that when Mr. Christie was pursuing his presidential ambitions, supporting Mr. Trump’s campaign or traveling to Texas to watch a Dallas Cowboys game, someone had to stay behind and run the state as acting governor, which in practice is almost always Ms. Guadagno.

While her rival, Mr. Murphy, is retired and able to fully commit to the campaign, Ms. Guadagno not only has to split her time between her full-time government job and campaigning, she also has to respond to the whim of a somewhat moody governor whose scheduling can cause problems for her political ambitions.

When Mr. Christie decided to speak at the annual New Jersey Chamber of Commerce dinner in Washington earlier this year, Ms. Guadagno remained in New Jersey as acting governor, missing the opportunity of a prominent speaking platform at the same event.

But her extensive fill-in role goes virtually unmentioned by Ms. Guadagno, presumably because Mr. Christie’s 15 percent approval rating is as toxic and damaging to her campaign as any scandal might be.

Some critics, including Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli, her opponent in the Republican primary, say she hasn’t done enough to stand up to the governor. Mr. Murphy has wasted no time tying Ms. Guadagno’s campaign to Mr. Christie.

Ms. Guadagno has been willing at times to break publicly with Mr. Christie, opposing a renovation of the State House that will cost hundreds of millions of dollars and disagreeing with Mr. Christie’s decision to raise the state’s low gas tax. But she stresses that she’s “not running against Chris Christie,” or, for that matter, the president.

“I’m not going to talk about Trump during the campaign,’’ Ms. Guadagno said. “I’m not going to talk about Chris Christie during the campaign.”

Some voters say they respect how she has dealt with Mr. Christie.

“When she was with our present governor, they kind of got broken up at the end,” said Jerome White, 58, a disabled veteran from Paterson. He said that while he typically votes Democratic, he is leaning toward Ms. Guadagno — “if she sticks to her word.”

“Governor!” he called out to her as she passed him at the charity event in East Rutherford.

Ms. Guadagno turned, though she quickly pointed out that she was still just the lieutenant governor. He smiled. “I’ll give it to you early.”

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