Phil Murphy rolls the dice as he takes sides in a bitter congressional primary I Stile
The aura of John F. Kennedy and his brother, Bobby, and the rest of the clan from Boston drew Phil Murphy to politics.
Murphy has cast himself as a 21st-century heir to the Kennedy tradition — going so far as to borrow the Kennedy family bible for his 2018 inauguration.
So it isn't entirely a surprise to see Murphy endorse Amy Kennedy, who is running for the Democratic nomination in the 2nd Congressional District in South Jersey in Tuesday's rescheduled primary.
"I was born in Boston, I grew up outside Boston. That doesn't help me get a lot of votes in New Jersey, by the way,'' Murphy said in a Facebook town hall meeting Wednesday with Kennedy, a former public school teacher from Brigantine. She is married to Patrick J. Kennedy, a former Rhode Island congressman and son of late U.S. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy.
Nostalgia for the Kennedy dynasty doesn't help the dynamics behind Murphy's decision to step from the sidelines — something sitting governors rarely do in bitter, intra-party nomination battles.
This is not a normal congressional contest.
The incumbent, Jeff Van Drew, put the district in the national spotlight last year when he defected to the Republican Party. The district includes all of Atlantic, Cape May, Cumberland, and Salem Counties, and parts of Camden, Gloucester, Burlington, and Ocean Counties.
A grateful President Trump embraced Van Drew at a rally in Wildwood in late January. But Democrats scrambled for the chance to take on Van Drew, sensing that a backlash over his defection and Trump's sagging poll numbers could put the historically conservative district in play.
Murphy's roll of the dice
Murphy's decision to side with Kennedy, despite what appears to be a close and uncertain race. represents a brazen political gamble, one that oddsmakers at the 2nd District's Atlantic City casinos might find difficult to calculate.
To many watching the race, Murphy is betting that the goodwill he garnered in his management of the state's COVID-19 response — one poll gave him a 71 percent approval rating — will adorn him with a powerful new set of coattails.
By endorsing Kennedy, Murphy is opening another front in his steady, cold war with the South Jersey Democratic machine assembled and managed by George E. Norcross, a Camden County insurance executive, and his longtime ally, Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-Gloucester.
Murphy's patchwork coalition of progressives, public-employee union leaders and north Jersey Democrats have met fierce resistance from the Democrats' South Jersey wing, a formidable bloc in the legislature that, at least in the early start of the governor's term, blocked key features of his agenda.
Sweeney backed Kennedy's chief rival, Brigid Callahan Harrison, a political analyst at Montclair State University. Harrison also picked up support from six of the district's eight county Democratic committees, a crucial institutional advantage in low-turnout primaries. She also won the backing of Sen. Robert Menendez and Sen. Cory Booker.
That has made Kennedy the darling of assertive, grassroots Democratic reformers, who have sought to weaken the Sweeney-Norcross grip on the Party. They have also been crucial in prodding Murphy to endorse Kennedy.
"I think the governor faced a lot of pressure from his progressive supporters who wanted him to weigh in on this," said Benjamin Dworkin, director of the Rowan Institute for Public Policy and Citizenship. "They didn't want to go into this battle ... without the 70 percent-approval-rating governor on their side."
As Sue Altman, director of the New Jersey Working Families Alliance and a Murphy supporter put it: "What fun is it to have a 70 percent approval rating if you can't endorse a candidate you like?"
A third Democratic ballot on the candidate, Will Cunningham, a former Booker aide and who also served as an investigator on the House Oversight Committee, would seem a perfect fit for this national reckoning over race and policing.
Cunningham, who hails from Vineland, is a Black lawyer, talks compellingly about his own experience of being handcuffed and thrown to the ground as a 13-year-old.
"Knowing what the feels like, at that age -- that is in existence for our entire community around the country and in our district,'' he said at a recent candidate forum.
But this race is less about the progressive ideals. It's about which candidate has the raw power to churn out the vote in a low-turnout election, complicated by a first widespread reliance on a vote-by-mail system.
Role of party machines still endures
Portraying Harrison as a pawn of the South Jersey machine has been a persistent attack theme of the Kennedy campaign. A "Game of Thrones" digital ad featuring Norcross clutching an iron sword.
“George Norcross is twisting arms and rigging the primary with back-room deals for Brigid Harrison — the same way he did for Jeff Van Drew," said Joel Roesch, Kennedy's campaign manager.
But despite Kennedy's anti-machine attacks, Harrison supporters say Kennedy initially solicited Norcross' counsel before jumping into the race.
And Kennedy is competitive, in large part, by winning the backing of Craig Calloway, an influential Atlantic City operative who spent 3 1/2 years behind bars on bribery charges. Kennedy went on to win the endorsement of the Atlantic County party, a crucial prize — nearly 40 percent of the district's registered Democrats live there.
"They partnered with someone who is very unscrupulous," Sweeney said last week.
Some observers also say Murphy has undergone a transformation from a deer-in-the-headlights neophyte to a governor with a better understanding of how to wield power. It appears now that Murphy is willing to flex that power, too.
And observers also note that the South Jersey machine is not as indomitable as often believed. As evidence, they point to Murphy's victory in an internal party fight for the next state Democratic Party chairman.
He also launched a special investigative panel into corporate tax credits that took direct aim at Camden-based entities linked to Norcross, drawing the interest of state and federal law enforcement authorities. Meanwhile, Republicans defeated three machine-picked Democrats in South Jersey legislative seats last year.
A failure by Harrison to win the party's nod could bolster the narrative of a crumbling operation.
"It is going to be a black eye if (Harrison) loses,'' said Micah Rasmussen, director of the Rebovich Institute of Politics at Rider University.
But there are risks for Murphy, as well. Some party operatives are annoyed over his endorsement. His decision has him working against Booker, who has backed Harrison as the establishment choice. Murphy has been a long-time Booker supporter.
Another wildcard is Cunningham, who captured 16 percent of the primary vote in 2018, when he challenged Van Drew, then machine-endorsed Democrat. Cunningham could also siphon some of the progressive vote that Kennedy is depending on.
"There is another narrative people will be writing that the governor backed the wrong side, the governor does not have power, he got beat again,'' said Matthew Hale, a political science professor at Seton Hall University. "That narrative has gone away during COVID. But that narrative could come back."
Charlie Stile is a veteran political columnist. For unlimited access to his unique insights into New Jersey’s political power structure and his powerful watchdog work, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.