Predicting Political Victories: Gov. Phil Murphy, R.I.P.

“Defend liberty” and “save the district” are the two main topics of attack on the campaign trail, especially on social media, but in the end, even Trump-supporting Democratic voters don’t tend to see Gov. Phil Murphy as their great and illustrious champion. And they aren’t alone, according to polls.

Murphy’s approval rating as governor hovers around the 30 percent mark, significantly lower than any of the other governors in the same position—including those on the other side of the aisle. That alone could win Murphy re-election this November, but it’s the paltry 26 percent of registered Democrats and independents who might have a problem with the governor that makes him a question mark, according to electoral scholars.

It’s been a bad month for the governor. The old buzzword of the day “Trump factor” has been more appropriate than usual. The conventional wisdom is that Murphy, a Clinton ally who started out the campaign as a TV commercial and New York progressive, owes his fall from grace to the sinking popularity of President Trump.

However, in that same August poll, NJ in Focus, 15 percent of voters said “He is an advocate for NY values,” 20 percent said he should focus on governing New Jersey, and a whopping 28 percent said he should focus more on politics in New York.

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To further prove his national popularity is not tied to New Jersey voters, after meeting President Trump in Washington for the first time this summer, Murphy joked to reporters that he looked a like he just had a root canal. It’s a fair point, but it’s just as true that few outside New Jersey political elites have taken him to task for Trump-style comments: Murphy joked, for example, about jailing senators who vote against President Trump on Syria and neo-Nazis marching through Charlottesville.

It isn’t just Democrats that have criticized Murphy. After the Senate confirmed Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court last week, one of the country’s leading female Republican leaders slammed Murphy for siding with Trump.

“While he’s been trying to brush it off as a fight between the two parties, Gov. Murphy himself sided with the president,” Ronna McDaniel, chairwoman of the Republican National Committee, said in a statement Friday. “There is no way to spin that.”

Murphy answered McDaniel’s criticism head-on, saying the Supreme Court picks were political and complicated.

“I’m not here to respond to the rote rules of warfare,” he said in a press conference. “I’m here to talk about policy and the values that matter.”

After the Kavanaugh announcement, Murphy’s was the only high-ranking New Jersey Republican to criticize the Senate Republican majority. He said the Kavanaugh confirmation set back efforts to address issues like state gun control laws and the opioid crisis.

Like Murphy, U.S. Rep. Tom MacArthur, R-3rd Dist., is being criticized from both sides for supporting Trump. And like Murphy, MacArthur is appealing to voters’ base rather than appeals to their interests.

MacArthur’s embrace of Trump notwithstanding, it would be a historic first for a New Jersey Governor to serve a two-year term, leaving Murphy to announce his departure in June of 2020, when he would turn 68. He faces multiple challengers, mostly Republicans, in the June primary.

The problem with predicting political outcomes is that nobody ever knows. But so far, Murphy’s prospects look more dire than most people expected when the fiscal year started, just two months ago.

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