National Politics Hang Over Tuesday’s New Jersey Primary

MONTCLAIR, N.J. — The African-American heritage parade on Saturday here drew to a momentary standstill. Philip D. Murphy, a Democratic candidate for governor, was darting back and forth across the street, responding to endless calls for handshakes, hugs and selfies.

Just in front of him was Jim Johnson, another Democratic candidate, who had barely broken a sweat after jogging nearly the entire route, so he could stop for hugs and handshakes as the parade wound through his hometown.

“People don’t forget when you shake their hands,” Mr. Johnson said, as he stood wearing a Rosa Parks shirt, a singular “Nah” quote stretched across the front. He added, “It was the hugs that slowed us down, it wasn’t the handshakes.”

With New Jersey set to vote on Tuesday in the nation’s first statewide primary election since the 2016 election, the candidates vying to replace Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, were bounding around the state all weekend, holding multiple events each day and making their closing arguments to voters. From festivals to parades to train platforms to strolls along the iconic Jersey Shore boardwalk, the candidates promised bold changes to a state plagued by high taxes, an exodus of jobs, mounting debt, a troubled transportation network and nearly a dozen credit downgrades under Mr. Christie.

But amid the final frenzied blitz of political activity, a strong sense of voter apathy still hung over the campaign. Despite the unique position in the political calendar that New Jersey holds and a mobilized progressive wing marching and protesting President Donald J. Trump in the streets week after week, voters have so far not truly embraced the election.

In most polls, a majority of voters still say they “don’t know” who to vote for and are not doing much to find out: The most recent poll from Stockton University found that 85 percent of the state did not tune in to either the Democratic or Republican televised debates. And the candidates are struggling to gain widespread media coverage in a state that lacks its own media market, instead sharing markets with two major cities in two other states.

The relative lack of interest from many voters is injecting a small dose of uncertainty into the seeming inevitability of the two candidates who have maintained wire-to-wire leads in polling, Mr. Murphy among Democrats and Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno on the Republican side.

“We’re not taking anything for granted,” Ms. Guadagno said in an interview, as she attended a ribbon-cutting for a deli in Towaco, her first of five campaign events on Saturday. She acknowledged in remarks outside the deli that it was looking like a “low turnout” election and repeatedly reminded those scattered on the sidewalk about Tuesday’s voting.

In New Jersey, one of the biggest drivers of voter turnout is the county political operations. Through their endorsements, candidates are offered a robust turnout operation, as well as the coveted county line on voting ballots, which most voters will choose when they do not know much about the candidates and want to support the party line.

Mr. Murphy has locked up every county line on the Democratic side, giving him a distinct advantage, especially if relatively few voters turn out for the election.

“I think in order to beat the county lines, you have to run an exceptional campaign and you have to really become a cause, a Bernie Sanders-like cause, and that has happened in the past certainly in New Jersey races but it doesn’t seem like anyone has been able to do that this time,” said Michael DuHaime, a former chief strategist for Mr. Christie’s campaign for governor and a partner at a consulting firm.

Perhaps sensing the need to chip into Mr. Murphy’s lead, the Democratic primary has been filled with attack ads and accusations.

John Wisniewski, a state assemblyman, has spent more than $1 million on advertising in the final days of the campaign and has been criticizing Mr. Murphy on a number of topics, accusing him of ethics violations, questioning his progressive credentials and targeting a top aide’s Facebook page.

Mr. Johnson’s most recent campaign ad attacks Mr. Murphy’s record using a quick snippet of a speech last year by Senator Bernie Sanders excoriating Goldman Sachs, where Mr. Murphy was president, and the “dark money that poisons our politics.” While it may seem like a shift in tone for the soft-spoken Mr. Johnson, he sees it as consistent with his campaign’s approach.

 “I have been pretty straightforward on calling issues from the beginning of the campaign — it’s part of our message to the people that we will speak plainly,” Mr. Johnson said, as he made his way to his campaign’s tent at the end of the parade in Montclair, where his mother, Dr. Byerte Johnson, was holding down the fort.

The same late-campaign rhetoric can be found on the Republican side. Ms. Guadagno focused her comments over the weekend on job growth and her dedication to small businesses — one of her chief tasks as lieutenant governor is acting as the liaison to the business community — but also contrasting her tax plan with that of her opponent, Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli, accusing him of wanting to raise taxes.

Mr. Ciattarelli, who spent most of his time on Saturday in southern New Jersey, has surprised many by offering a spirited challenge to the lieutenant governor, charging around the state with a stump speech concentrated on amending the school funding formula as a way to lower state property taxes, the highest in the nation.

The long shadow of the 2016 election, as well as the constant drama in Washington, may have soured some on local politics, but the candidates were focusing on the national mood heading into Tuesday.

State Senator Ray Lesniak, who qualified for debates but has struggled to gain traction in his campaign, spent Saturday marching in the Annual LGBTQ Celebration parade along the Asbury Park boardwalk and Sunset Park.

Mr. Murphy has been framing his candidacy as a check on the Trump administration. His “closing argument” ad does not mention his opponents or Mr. Christie, just a list of what he views as Mr. Trump’s transgressions and how New Jersey could counteract the president’s agenda.

And it seems to be working. As he wrapped up his frenzied handshake blitz at the parade’s end, a woman standing on a stage beckoned him over.

“Murphy! Mr. Murphy!” she yelled. Eventually, he heard her and jogged over.

“Will you help us fire Trump?” she asked.

He pulled back and offered a smile. “Oh, God help us. We’re doing everything we can.”

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