TRENTON, N.J. — Gov. Chris Christie is frequently on national cable shows, made headlines from his handling of Superstorm Sandy and Bridgegate and had a failed presidential run in between. But both of his potential successors, Democrat Phil Murphy and Republican Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, are still nearly blank slates, unknown to most people in the state.
New Jersey voters go to the polls Nov. 7 to elect the Republican incumbent’s successor, and neither of the top-party nominees carries the kind of national profile that Christie has had since he first won statewide office in 2009, ahead of an anti-Barack Obama tea party wave.
It’s a change that voters are still grappling with and one they interpret in different ways. A lower profile could mean Christie’s successor is less pulled toward national concerns and focused on the state. It could also mean fewer people are paying attention to state issues.
Trisha Danze, a 44-year-old mother of two, lives in Robbinsville and voted for Christie twice. She says she’s a supporter of Guadagno mostly because of her promise to lower property taxes, but she’s grown tired of Christie since his presidential run. She says he spent too much time out of state and that a lower-profile governor could be good.
“I would want somebody that’s gonna prioritize what’s best for our state. But I think that person is hard to find,” she said.
Matt Mazewski, 26, from Long Valley, is a Ph.D. student in economics at Columbia University and is voting for Murphy. He says he’s noticed the candidates’ lower profiles have led to fewer people paying attention.
“I’ve been surprised since the primary how little attention the race has gotten,” he said. “One person I talked to said ‘I didn’t know there was a race this year.'”
Mazewski, who voted for Assemblyman John Wisniewski in the June primary, attended a Murphy town hall and came away impressed, particularly with his idea for a state-owned bank. He says he thinks the candidates might be lower-profile because of the constant stream of headlines out of the Trump White House.
Christie’s unpopularity and larger-than-life image give Murphy, who has cash and polling advantages over Guadagno, a boost, experts say.
“The Republican governor is unpopular. The Republican president is unpopular. The Republican nominee for governor is relatively unknown,” Fairleigh Dickinson University political science professor Peter Woolley said. “Murphy is in such a strong position that he can put a tax increase on the table.”
Murphy’s campaign says he would raise taxes by $1.3 billion.
Christie will leave office in January as one of the state’s least popular governors. A Rutgers Eagleton poll out this week showed his approval rating at just 16 percent.
But he’s exiting after occupying the national stage throughout his two terms. Christie was a guest on late-night television shows, portraying a dancing dad on Jimmy Fallon’s show, complete with polo shirt and hiked-up khakis, gaining praise for his Sandy response, rising briefly to the top of GOP polls as a potential presidential candidate before the George Washington Bridge scandal hit in early 2014.
He was never charged and denied wrongdoing in the scandal, but it played a part in his falling popularity, capped off by his unsuccessful run for president and an early summer government shutdown that featured photos of Christie lounging on a beach that had closed to the public.
Both Murphy and Guadagno are little known in the state.
Murphy, a former ambassador and Goldman Sachs executive, and Guadagno, Christie’s top deputy since 2009, were unknown by about 60 percent of voters in a recent Monmouth University poll.
An August 2009 Monmouth poll showed Christie was unknown by about only 28 percent of voters.
The Rutgers Eagleton poll out this week showed 64 percent of voters either had no opinion on or hadn’t heard of Murphy. For Guadagno, it was 65 percent.