GOP gov hopeful veers to right in New Jersey

GOP gov hopeful veers to right in New Jersey
© Getty Images

New Jersey Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno (R) has taken a hard right turn as Election Day approaches, seizing on immigration and other issues that are important to GOP voters.

Guadagno has pivoted to the right in the campaign’s closing weeks in an effort to mobilize the base in the face of a double-digit shortfall in the polls.

She’s condemned Democratic rival Phil Murphy for saying he’s open to making New Jersey a “sanctuary state.” She supports a ban on “sanctuary cities” and if elected, she’d withhold state funding if cities adopted those policies.


Guadagno’s hard-line stance on immigration mirrors Virginia GOP gubernatorial hopeful Ed Gillespie, another Republican moderate running in a state that’s trending blue.


Both Republicans have moved to the right in the general election to shore up pro-Trump voters in the off-year elections. But the New Jersey election is a steeper challenge for Guadagno, who’s hoping her pivot can chip away at Murphy’s consistent double-digit lead in a much bluer state.

Guadagno, a former county sheriff and federal prosecutor, has struggled to gain traction in the quiet gubernatorial race. New Jersey Democrats have a voter registration edge, and outgoing Gov. Chris Christie (R) suffers from record-low approval ratings.

Guadagno’s campaign until now mainly focused on cutting property taxes, with polling a month out from the Nov. 7 race finding that her economic message wasn’t gaining much traction.

“When you see a sudden change late in the game, it suggests the original strategy was not doing well,” said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, adding that his survey from early October found that only 12 percent of voters had heard of her tax plan.

In the closing weeks, Guadagno has sought to incorporate a more immigration-heavy message similar to President Trump’s. The Trump administration has tried to withhold grant money from sanctuary cities, which do not cooperate with federal immigration authorities, although a federal judge blocked the attempt in September.

With Election Day looming, Guadagno has argued that the proposal from Murphy, a former Goldman Sachs executive and U.S. ambassador to Germany, to make New Jersey a “sanctuary state” to protect so-called Dreamers “disqualifies” him from becoming the next governor.

Her campaign also launched a controversial ad playing up Murphy’s comments about sanctuary states, claiming that he’ll “have the backs of deranged murderers” like an undocumented immigrant who killed three New Jersey students.

The ad, which ran in commercial breaks during Fox News’s “Fox & Friends” morning show, received heavy pushback from Democrats including former Vice President Joe BidenJoseph (Joe) Robinette BidenMeet the lawyer Democrats call when it's recount time O'Rourke receives invite to visit Iowa from Democratic Party in Des Moines Nearly six in ten want someone other than Trump elected president in 2020: poll MORE and former President Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonGillibrand sidesteps question on possible Clinton 2020 run Despite a divided government, the next Congress will provide opportunities for cooperation Lewinsky: I contemplated suicide after Clinton affair became public MORE.

“To accuse him of what I’ve seen in some of these ads, to scare the living daylights out of people and trying to get their vote based on something that is flat-out false,” Clinton said during a campaign stop for Murphy.

Guadagno and her running mate for lieutenant governor, Carlos Rendo, have defended the ad.

“Her response to Murphy’s pledge to make New Jersey a sanctuary state was to really come down hard on illegal immigration,” said Ross Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers University. “I think that’s clearly an effort to rally the base and rally the Trump people.”

Guadagno’s decision to target Trump voters could give her a boost with the base and help start to close the wide gap in what’s expected to be a low-turnout election. But Murray says that Guadagno’s strategy likely won’t be as successful as it has been in Virginia’s gubernatorial race, where the Democratic nominee is only slightly favored, and could ultimately put off voters.

“New Jersey is not Virginia. She’s come late into this game,” Murray said. “That kind of rhetoric will win her some voters, but will turn off more than she wins.”

Despite Murphy’s commanding lead in the polls, Democrats have brought a number of political heavy-hitters to the campaign trail.

Former President Obama returned to the political spotlight for the first time since leaving office to campaign with Murphy and others, including former Vice President Al GoreAlbert (Al) Arnold GoreMeet the lawyer Democrats call when it's recount time Schumer tells Trump to stay out of Florida recount Rick Scott fundraises off Trump claim that Dems are trying to steal election MORE and Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom PerezThomas Edward PerezClinton’s top five vice presidential picks Government social programs: Triumph of hope over evidence Labor’s 'wasteful spending and mismanagement” at Workers’ Comp MORE.

Guadagno isn’t the only candidate in the race who has veered away from the center in the general.

Murphy has begun to back issues dear to supporters of Sen. Bernie SandersBernard (Bernie) SandersO'Rourke receives invite to visit Iowa from Democratic Party in Des Moines Senators return to Washington intent on action against Saudis Bernie Sanders: 'We have a president who is a racist' MORE (I-Vt.), including a $15 minimum hourly wage and tuition-free community college. Guadagno’s campaign has criticized Murphy for being too progressive.

Given his substantial lead, though, political observers say that the New Jersey Democrat can afford to stake out more progressive positions without risking more moderate voters.

Sanders and his allied political group, Our Revolution, have stayed on the sidelines in both gubernatorial races this year. But some say that Murphy’s strategy could offer Democrats a roadmap for future races, as the party still grapples with whether it should move more to the left.

“In my mind, Murphy is really representing a microcosm of one way the national Democrats can move forward in years after 2017,” said Brigid Callahan Harrison, a political science professor at Montclair State University.