Phil Murphy | AP Photo

Gov. Phil Murphy said he’s keenly aware of how Chris Christie treated the Republican Governors Association job, and said he’ll be closely watching the calendar to ensure his political work doesn’t conflict with his governmental work. | AP Photo/Seth Wenig

Murphy looks to avoid Christie model as he becomes DGA chairman

JERSEY CITY, N. J. — New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, set to take over this week as chairman of the Democratic Governors Association, may ignore one of the traditional roles of the post: hitting the road to support fellow gubernatorial candidates.

Murphy, in a phone interview Monday, said he plans to stick to fundraising and strategy. He says he doesn't want to make the same mistake his predecessor Chris Christie did. Christie suffered low approval ratings in the Garden State as he led the Republican Governors Association.

Story Continued Below

Murphy will ascend to the chairmanship with 11 state governors' offices up for election next year, including four — Delaware, Montana, North Carolina and Washington — with Democratic incumbents. Montana, where incumbent Steve Bullock has hit the term limit, has the only open seat out of the 11, one that is widely considered a toss-up that could consume a big chunk of the DGA’s attention.

Murphy, who was the Democratic National Committee finance chairman when former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean was chairman, said a part of him pines for Dean's "50-state strategy" of making Democrats competitive in states that normally vote Republican, but said he doesn't expect to follow that model leading the governors group.

As DNC finance chair from 2006 to 2009, Murphy helped implement Dean’s strategy, which called for putting resources into every state no matter how unlikely Democratic victory seemed. Murphy says he still appreciates that approach, though he also wants to be a realist.

“I don’t want to be foolish,” he said, adding: “The Howard Dean in me — I want to compete everywhere.”

Govs. Jay Inslee of Washington and John Carney Jr. of Delaware are in relatively safe Democratic seats. In North Carolina, a potential presidential battleground, Gov. Roy Cooper’s seat is considered “likely,” “tilt” or “lean" Democrat by, respectively, the Cook Political Report, Inside Elections and Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball.

Republican seats are up for grabs next year in Indiana, Missouri, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Utah, Vermont and West Virginia. Murphy noted there are elected statewide Democrats in New Hampshire, Vermont and West Virginia, making those states appealing places to play an offensive role.

“I want to take all of them seriously,” Murphy said, but noted much of the strategy may be based on which candidates show up to run. “It’s a pretty diverse map. A lot depends on the candidates themselves — who they are, the process they run, the campaigns they run.”

Rally speeches and retail politicking might seem to be part of the job description, but Murphy says he needs to balance his role as governor with the new post helping his party and peers. He’s already grappling with how to make both work, having delayed his departure for the DGA meeting in San Francisco — where he’ll be sworn in — so he can manage New Jersey’s response to a major winter storm affecting the Northeast.

“I don’t know about that," Murphy said about hitting the road to help Democratic candidates. "I think if it would help, the answer is yes. But that to me is not the first responsibility. ... I would bet there’s not a lot of personal campaigning, if I had to predict.”

Murphy need look no further than Christie to know what kind of a response to expect if his constituents think he’s spending too much time out of state for political reasons. Christie logged 148 days on the road in 2014 when he was chairman of the RGA and more later when he ran for president — facts that contributed to his record-low approval rating when he left office a few years later.

Murphy, who spoke as he was headed to a State Police barracks in Central Jersey, said he’s keenly aware of how Christie treated the RGA job, and said he’ll be closely watching the calendar to ensure his political work doesn’t conflict with his governmental work. He also said it helps that his motivations are different than Christie’s.

“I think Gov. Christie did the RGA for his own mission and life, and I’m doing it for New Jersey,” Murphy said, saying his relationships with other governors can help him better represent his state. “New Jersey comes first, and I’m living proof of it, because I’m in an SUV headed to the Somerville barracks.”

Murphy, a former Goldman Sachs executive who’s now approaching two years in office, is a self-described progressive who ran on a platform of passing a $15 minimum wage, legalizing marijuana, raising taxes on the rich and protecting immigrants — even if it meant turning New Jersey into a “sanctuary state.”

While he spent the last year as chairman-elect and vice chairman of the DGA, Murphy hasn’t established much of a national profile and, at home, registers only average name recognition.

As for messaging, Murphy believes some efforts will go into attacking President Donald Trump, and he likes to make the argument that “governors have never mattered more.” But he said most races will be won by focusing on local, bread-and-butter issues like education, health care and the environment.

“I think it’s a combination, but I think it leans heavily toward the local kitchen table issues. You can’t ignore what’s going on in Washington — you can’t ignore him,” Murphy said, but adds that “leans more heavily” toward “stat-level stuff.”

Jump to sidebar section