The next gubernatorial election in New Jersey isn’t for 13 months, but one candidate has suddenly emerged as the heavy favorite to be elected in November 2017.

Retired Goldman Sachs executive and former U.S. Ambassador to Germany Phil Murphy has vaulted to the top of the Democratic heap after Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop and state Senate President Steve Sweeney announced they were dropping out of the race over the past few weeks.

Although Gov. Chris Christie won re-election as a Republican, Democrats outnumber GOP voters in New Jersey. On the Republican side, Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli, R-Somerset, and Ocean County businessman and political neophyte Joseph Rudy Rullo have announced their candidacies. Political observers believe Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno may throw her hat into the ring.

While Murphy hasn't held elected political officer before, he has plenty of money.

“What happened is Phil Murphy ... began spending lots of money to influence the outcome of this election,” said Brigid Harrison, a political science professor at Montclair State University.

She pointed out neither Sweeney nor Fulop are rich and “they essentially got outspent before they even spent a dime for their own gubernatorial election.”

Harrison explained when Murphy announced he would put $10 million of his own money into his campaign and not participate in the public funding option, it quickly became an insurmountable obstacle for the non self-funded candidates to combat.

Murphy bought a great deal of advertising, but also “he contributed very heavily to many Democratic campaigns both on the municipal and the county level, and in doing that he endured himself with many democratic party chairs," she said.

Harrison said that’s critically important because what matters most in a primary election is who gets the county party line, the preferred ballot position in a primary .

“With those contributions, essentially, Mr. Murphy succeeded in buying the party line,” she said.

Ben Dworkin, a political science professor at Rider University, said once Fulop dropped out of the race and immediately endorsed Murphy, it became clear Murphy would get the party line in North Jersey, which is very significant.

“Having that preferred ballot position in a primary gives you automatically 75 to 85 percent of the vote, it’s a very coveted position you want,” he said.

Although Dworkin doesn’t believe this was simply a matter of Murphy having a lot more money than any other candidate, he pointed out to run a successful campaign in New Jersey, which is right between the New York and Philadelphia media markets, “it helps if you have several million dollars to be able to spend on that campaign.”

Harrison says right now the Democratic Party is solidly behind Murphy, “but as time goes by, one of the things that many of the party bosses — those county party leaders that are enormously important — will come to realize that they actually have very little leverage when it comes to getting Mr. Murphy to be able to do the kind of things that they want him to do.”

Dworkin noted that with most of the Democratic heavy hitters now lining up to support Murphy, he’s considered the prohibitive favorite to get the Democratic nomination.

“If there’s one piece of conventional wisdom that is almost universally shared by both democrats and republicans, it’s that the next governor is going to be a Democrat,” he said.

Contact reporter David Matthau at

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