By Stephen Sigmund
Political scientists and pundits in New Jersey have long argued that our gubernatorial elections, held the year before congressional midterms, are not a national bellwether. New Jersey is unique and responds to its own issues, according to the talking heads.
This year the cover was blown off that argument when Democrat Phil Murphy's 14-point win joined other victories for his party in Virginia, Nassau and Westchester counties in New York and elsewhere. These wins were clearly connected to a deeply unpopular Republican president in Donald Trump. Of course, it also helped Murphy to run against the lieutenant governor of one of the most unpopular Republicans in the country in Chris Christie.
But the facts show that our pundits and professors consistently underestimate what our elections mean. New Jersey's gubernatorial elections have long been an indicator of the gathering national political mood, particularly in the modern era, which has flipped the old Tip O'Neill saw of "all politics is local" on its head. Now, all politics, including New Jersey's, is national.
Let's look back at recent history to see this reality in action.
In 1993, Democrat Jim Florio, despite his low approval ratings as governor, led Christie Whitman by about 10 points in public polls just days before the election. He lost, presaging an anti-Democratic incumbent wave across the country the following year, when Republicans won control of both houses of Congress and stalwarts like House Speaker Tom Foley, D-Washington, were defeated.
In 1997, Whitman herself was a popular incumbent expected to cruise to re-election. Instead, she narrowly withstood a challenge from Woodbridge Mayor Jim McGreevey. The following year, despite their belief that the Monica Lewinsky scandal would strengthen their majorities, Republicans instead lost House seats as voters were turned off by their party's hunt to impeach Bill Clinton, a popular president overseeing record economic growth.
While 2001 serves as an anomaly (Democrat McGreevey was elected handily in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, while the following year Republicans in Congress ran on a security platform to hold on to congressional majorities), 2005 resumed the trend. Democrat Jon Corzine won the governor's office easily as the mistakes of the Iraq War undermined the second term of President George W. Bush and of a Republican-controlled Congress; the following year, the increasing mess in Iraq ushered in Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress and ultimately helped lead to Barack Obama's election in 2008 as president.
By 2009, the New Jersey tide had turned again, and the nation quickly followed. Corzine was painted as a weak leader who overpromised and underdelivered, and he was ushered out of office by Republican Chris Christie. The following year, Republicans retook the House and made major gains in the Senate in a vote against both Obamacare and the president himself, whose grand promises of unity and change had not come to pass.
The year 2013 saw Christie re-elected in a landslide, and along with him his brand of tell-it-like-it-is, take-no-prisoners populism. While that election did precede a very strong Republican year in 2014, what it really ushered in was the era of Donald Trump. Eschewing traditional party politics (remember the post-Sandy Christie-Obama hug?) and insulting opponents (telling reporters to "take a bat" to Loretta Weinberg, "sit down and shut up" to a Sandy heckler), Christie was Trump before there was Trump.
We can't see the future, and 12 months is a lifetime in politics and a social-media-driven culture, so definitively saying that Murphy's election this year means Democrats will have a great midterm election next year is foolish.
But history does serve as a guide. And if New Jersey's gubernatorial elections over the past 25 years tell us anything, it's that our little corner of the world is a strong indicator for the politics that are building across the country. This year, what's building is an anti-Trump wave.
Stephen Sigmund, a veteran of the administrations of Govs. Jim Florio and Jon Corzine, is a Maplewood resident and senior advisor at Global Strategy Group.
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