What New Jersey's gubernatorial contest tells us about the political landscape

What New Jersey's gubernatorial contest tells us about the political landscape
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In the Octobers following presidential election years, the national political spotlight is on the Virginia and New Jersey gubernatorial races.

This year, there's a tight race getting a lot of attention in Virginia, with Democrats struggling to retain power; there is very little in New Jersey, where it's assumed incumbent Democratic Gov. Phil MurphyPhil MurphySununu setback leaves GOP scrambling in New Hampshire House Democrats planning 1,000 events to tout accomplishments Ciattarelli formally concedes in New Jersey to Phil Murphy MORE will win, with the party holding its advantage in the state legislature.

New Jersey is part of a realignment in American politics over the past three decades. States with a large number of minorities and upper-income college-educated voters that once were competitive or even tilted Republican are now solidly Democratic; the Garden State and California are two prime examples.

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Conversely, culturally conservative states with fewer highly educated voters, such as West Virginia and Arkansas, switched from blue to deep red.

In New Jersey more than 40 percent of the population is non-white, as is almost 30 percent of the electorate. Blacks, Hispanics and Asians have voted overwhelmingly Democratic.

Once the subject of late-night comedians for its toxic dump sites and mafiosos, New Jersey is the most suburban state in America and one of the three most affluent. Northern New Jersey is a high-tech center and home to lawyers and financial executives commuting to New York. These suburbs are Democratic, a trend accelerated by Donald TrumpDonald TrumpOmar, Muslim Democrats decry Islamophobia amid death threats On The Money — Powell pivots as inflation rises Trump cheers CNN's Cuomo suspension MORE.

Republicans were victorious in six straight presidential elections in New Jersey from 1968 through1988, when George H.W. Bush carried the state by 13.5 points. The congressional delegation was pretty evenly divided then.

After that, Democrats have won eight straight New Jersey presidential contests. Biden trounced Donald Trump 57 percent to 41 percent last November. Democrats have a 10 to 2 advantage in the state's U.S. House delegation — one of the Republicans switched parties. There hasn’t been an elected GOP Senator from New Jersey in almost 50 years.

Alvin Felzenberg, who worked for the popular Republican Gov. Tom Kean in the 1980s and wrote a book about him, says that those suburban Republicans who were the “backbone" of Kean's support “have either left the party or passed on.” The new residents, he notes, lean to Democrats as the party has turned more to moderate progressives like Sen. Corey Booker and Murphy. (A model was Bill Bradley, the enormously popular senator and basketball great who served three terms at the end of the 20th century.)

John Farmer, director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University, agrees, adding that the GOP’s “identification with Trump has hurt the party,” notably in recent congressional contests.

Murphy's predecessor, two-term Gov. Chris ChristieChris ChristieChristie: McCarthy, not Trump, will be the next Speaker The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by ExxonMobil - Arbery case, Biden spending bill each test views of justice Sunday shows - Spotlight shifts to Senate for Biden spending plan MORE — once considered the leader of a Republican resurgence — ended up costing the party. He left office four years ago immensely unpopular, mired in controversies and scandal. He ran an embarrassingly bad presidential primary race in 2016, dropped out and embraced Trump — who shunned appointing him to any to post.

Felzenberg sees Christie as a negative today: “His association with Trump will stick with him like glue.”

Jack Ciattarelli, the Republican gubernatorial nominee, is a former state legislator who has acknowledged that Joe BidenJoe BidenCDC working to tighten testing requirement for international travelers On The Money — Powell pivots as inflation rises Overnight Energy & Environment — Presented by ExxonMobil — Manchin seeks 'adjustments' to spending plan MORE won the presidential election; nevertheless, he is campaigning as a Trumpite, blasting the Gov. Murphy as an “extremist,” opposing tough COVID restrictions, and supporting loosened gun laws. The aim is to energize the base; the problem may be that base isn't sufficient.

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The state was hard hit by COVID, along with neighboring New York. There have been numerous nursing home deaths. Still, Murphy — who imposed tough restrictions and mask mandates, social distancing and testing — wins approval from voters, 62 percent to 27 percent on his handling of the pandemic, according to the Monmouth University poll conducted three weeks ago.

The 64-year-old former Goldman Sachs executive and U.S. ambassador to Germany has fought with the Democratic legislature, but he touts his record providing free community college tuition for low income residents, expanding voting rights and — in contrast to his opponent — standing up for the LGBTQ community. He uses every opportunity to tie Ciattarelli to Trump.

Along with support for his COVID policies, Murphy's biggest calling card for reelection is the sorry state of New Jersey’s Republican party.

Al Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for the Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter century he wrote a column on politics for The Wall Street Journal, then The International New York Times and Bloomberg View. He hosts Politics War Room with James Carville. Follow him on Twitter @AlHuntDC.