TRENTON, N.J. — New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, who remains relatively low-profile in his home state nearly two years after taking office, will get a chance to shine on the national stage come December, when he takes over as chairman of the Democratic Governors Association.
It’s a high-profile position that will give Murphy a chance to develop relationships with fundraisers and Democratic governors around the country, all of which will provide him a platform as a state-level progressive counterpoint to President Donald Trump’s policies.
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“When Phil ran for governor, he said repeatedly that during the Trump era, it was going to fall to the states and their governors to advance a pro-middle class agenda and a progressive agenda — whether it’s defending the [Affordable Care Act], protecting reproductive rights, increasing the minimum wage, the environmental assault by the Trump administration, welcoming new immigrants or gun safety,” Murphy political adviser Brendan Gill said in an interview.
Murphy will get the opportunity to hone that message in 2020, when 11 governors — seven of them Republicans — are up for election. Flipping several of those seats could bolster Murphy’s profile as a progressive governor willing to take on the Trump administration when Congress won’t, potentially making him a national figure.
A poor showing, however, could relegate him to nationwide obscurity while exacerbating his political problems at home.
Either way, the yearlong chairmanship comes with a big risk that Murphy’s predecessor, former Republican Gov. Chris Christie, encountered and that Democratic Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) is now facing while running for president: New Jerseyans don’t like it when their elected officials spend a lot of time out-of-state.
Gill maintains Murphy, who was elected in 2017, won’t fall into that trap.
“Nothing that will take him away from his main responsibility, which is to be the governor of the state,” Gill said. “If and when he has to take a trip, it will be used in a way that puts the state’s priorities first.”
This isn’t the first time Murphy, who was elected vice chair and chair-elect of the DGA in December 2018, has taken on a national role for the party. The former Goldman Sachs executive served as finance chairman of the Democratic National Committee from 2006 to 2009, leading to his appointment as U.S. Ambassador to Germany under President Barack Obama.
But that was before he began leading a state whose residents had already gotten their fill of a governor with political ambitions that extended beyond New Jersey.
In 2014, when he was already being talked about as the leading candidate for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination, Christie was named chairman of the Republican Governors Association. The 148 days Christie spent out of state that year didn’t help his approval rating at home, though it’s hard to measure exactly how much his position with the RGA hurt him since it also coincided with the Bridgegate scandal.
Christie’s presidential run, which took him out of state for the majority of 2015, contributed to his approval rating plummeting to the mid-teens, making him the most unpopular New Jersey governor since the advent of public polling.
“Particularly after the bad taste that Chris Christie left behind, it’s not going to go over well for most of New Jersey,” Monmouth University pollster Patrick Murray said, referring to governors spending time out of state.
Booker is also starting to see his home-state approval rating drop, thanks in part to the amount of time he’s spending running for president, even though the absence of a senator who spends much of his time in Washington isn’t as noticeable as when a governor leaves the state.
Murphy has already come under fire from lawmakers for being aloof, eschewing frequent face-to-face meetings in favor of top-down political messaging meant to pressure lawmakers to support his progressive agenda.
State Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg warned that the governor needs to strike a balance between campaigning for Democrats out of state and governing at home.
“I’s not great to be out of the state of New Jersey too often. This is a state that needs a lot of solutions and it needs a lot of face-to-face meetings to get those solutions done,” Weinberg said. “And in order to do that, you have to be here.”
Murphy has plenty of challenges at home that need his attention.
The state’s transit agency, which deteriorated under Christie, has shown few tangible signs of improvement for commuters even though Murphy has promised to fix NJ Transit “if it kills me.” At the same time, Murphy in recent months has had to focus on dealing with a lead water crisis in Newark — an issue for which residents haven’t given him high marks.
New Jersey also has a pension crisis two decades in the making and Murphy has spent two years fighting over taxes and other issues with the faction of his own party that controls the Legislature and has rebuffed his attempts to overhaul the state’s generous corporate tax incentive programs.
Still, Murphy has used his office to go after Trump and prove his progressive bona fides. He’s enacted new policies on gun control — including a recent measure to leverage state purse strings to pressure gun manufacturers, retailers companies that do business with them — allowed state financial aid for undocumented immigrants who grew up in New Jersey and had his attorney general, Gurbir Grewal, file numerous lawsuits challenging Trump administration policies.
But New Jersey residents remain basically split on Murphy’s performance as governor, with about a fifth having no opinion of him despite his nearly two years in office, according to a Monmouth University poll released last week. According to the same poll, a 49 percent plurality say Murphy is more concerned about his political future than with governing New Jersey.
“Well before he ran for governor, his agenda was a national agenda. Very much like the things that we are hearing in the Democratic presidential debate right now,” Murray, the Monmouth pollster, said. “And if we look at how the public is reacting to him here in New Jersey, part of it is that there’s a sense that his agenda is not a New Jersey agenda.”
Asked if there was any chance Murphy would consider running for president in 2024 should his national status rise as DGA chairman, Gill said Murphy’s political operation is “focused on doing everything we can to help elect Cory Booker president of the United States.”
New Jersey Republicans, who lost legislative seats in the Christie era and have reeled from the former governor’s unpopularity, see a chance for a comeback against a governor who has prioritized progressive issues and who plans to spend time out of state.
Doug Steinhardt, chairman of the Republican State Committee, accused Murphy of offering “free college for illegal immigrants. Meanwhile, New Jersey’s biggest city doesn’t have drinking water.” (Newark’s elevated lead levels are only in part of the city, and Murphy announced this week that despite earlier alarm bells from the federal EPA, 97 percent of the water filters handed to residents are working as planned).
“It seems to me this time would be better spent trying to make friends with New Jersey Democrats rather than run around the country trying to make friends with New York, New England and North Dakota Democrats,” Steinhardt said.