Whither the Democrats after 2016? A year before the 2018 midterm elections, that question will get its first real test in New Jersey, one of only two states (along with Virginia) where the governorship is at stake this year. And just as last year’s presidential primary pitted Hillary Clinton, the establishment candidate, against Bernie Sanders, a left-leaning insurgent, the two leading candidates in New Jersey’s 2017 Democratic primary have staked out their turf in the party’s Clinton and Sanders wings.
Voters in deep-blue New Jersey, who have groaned under the weight of Governor Chris Christie’s Republican administration since 2009, are eager for a fresh start. With Christie’s approval rating at an all-time low of just 18 percent, the odds strongly favor a Democratic win over any of the potential GOP candidates aiming to succeed him.
The state’s Democratic primary, which takes place in June, is shaping up as a choice between the favorite, Phil Murphy, a multimillionaire and former Goldman Sachs executive with strong backing from the party establishment, and his leading challenger, Assemblyman John Wisniewski, a veteran legislator and former chair of Sanders’s presidential effort in the state. For Wisniewski, the primary is an uphill climb, and he’s running an insurgent, populist-tinged campaign that he hopes will inspire the same enthusiasm that energized the Sanders movement.
To hear Wisniewski tell it, his campaign is part of a national effort to bring the Democratic Party back to its roots. “The party periodically has to go through reevaluation and soul-searching about its core beliefs,” he told The Nation. “The party went through that right after Ronald Reagan became president, and there was this view that the party needed to be more centrist. We had a movement led by the governor of Arkansas, who later became our president, about taking the party to the center. Over time, the party started to become indistinguishable from the Republicans. What we’re seeing today is a natural reaction that’s built up over the years, where a lot of rank and file feel that we Democrats haven’t stuck to our core beliefs.”
Perhaps the biggest challenge that Wisniewski faces is New Jersey’s entrenched system of party bosses. The state is notorious for the power wielded behind the scenes by a handful of figures, such as South Jersey’s George Norcross, an insurance executive, and North Jersey’s Joseph DiVincenzo Jr., the Essex County executive (whose domain includes Newark). Along with other, less powerful Democratic machines and the party chairpersons in each of New Jersey’s 21 counties, they exert enormous influence in primary elections, in part by controlling which candidate gets the favored first line on the ballot. In the 2016 presidential primary, the entire New Jersey Democratic leadership, including all of the state’s elected officials (except Wisniewski), lined up for Clinton, who won 566,247 votes to Sanders’s 328,058.