As we kick off a brand new year, the race for governor in New Jersey begins in earnest.

According to Fairleigh Dickenson University political science professor Peter Woolley, two candidates have established themselves as the early front-runners to win their parties’ nominations in June.

One the Democratic side, former U.S. Ambassador to Germany and millionaire businessman Phil Murphy is the clear favorite.

“This guy has gotten virtually everyone’s endorsement in North and South Jersey. He’s cleaning up endorsements from unions and interest groups, so that makes him the man to beat,” said Woolley.

He added at this point, the only other Democrat of significance in the race is Assemblyman John Wisniewski.

“He’s a veteran legislator who endorsed Bernie Sanders and is going to run as the champion of the little guy, as a kind of outsider, even though he is very much an insider,” said Woolley.

On the other side of the aisle, Woolley pointed to Lt. Governor Kim Guadagno as the clear favorite to represent her party in November, with Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli also in the race. Guadagno has not formally announced her candidacy, but she's widely expected to run.

He said Guadagno’s biggest challenge in the campaign will be distancing herself from Chris Christie “unless he waves a magic wand and gets his popularity way back up in the first term.”

Woolley said Guadagno has been making an effort to do so lately.

“The lieutenant governor, to carve out her own persona, now does have to become a critic of the governor. For voters, that’s going to be a very interesting play unfolding, to have the lieutenant governor criticizing the sitting governor over his policies, after she’s been fairly quiet and cooperative for seven years,” he said.

Woolley said even though Murphy has a clear advantage in the race for the Democratic nomination, it’s possible something crazy could happen before the primary.

“All campaigns make mistakes. All candidates make mistakes. It’s really just a matter of how bad the mistake is and how forgiving the electorate is,” he said.

Recent history suggests the voters may be very forgiving.

“We’ve just had a presidential campaign where at least one of the candidates constantly made gaffes and it didn’t seem to hurt him. Inexperienced candidates from outside of politics can and do succeed. It’s happened in New Jersey and it certainly happened in the White House,” said Woolley.

He pointed out former Goldman Sachs boss Jon Corzine won a U.S. Senate seat with no political experience, and then went on to become governor.

No matter who wins the primary elections, Woolley said, “all of these candidates have very low name recognition, so among the rank and file voters these are obscure people.”

This would suggest, he said, that the Democratic and Republican nomination primaries “are really going to be small affairs. There are going to be a small number of voters with relatively little information about the candidates who are going to make the decision about who is going to be the next pairing for governor of New Jersey.”

What about the big New Jersey gas tax hike, approved by a Democratically controlled Legislature and signed by a republican Governor — will that hurt either party?

Woolley said any kind of backlash against the gas tax is a wildcard for all the candidates.

“They structured the gas tax deal to spread the responsibility and therefore the accountability among as many people as possible, so voters will find it very difficult to point a finger of blame at any one party and any one candidate,” he said.

Contact reporter David Matthau at David.Matthau@townsquaremedia.com.

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