As first-year elections go, the race for governor of New Jersey looks brutal for President Trump and the GOP. Just 41 percent of the state’s voters backed Trump in the 2016 election, and his favorable numbers are even lower now. Departing Gov. Chris Christie (R), once a national star, has seen his favorable ratings sink into the 20s. The best-known Republican candidate, Christie’s lieutenant governor, polls just as low — 29 percent — in a trial heat with Democratic front-runner Phil Murphy.

The GOP’s surprising strategy to dig out, so far, has been to pummel Murphy for his criticism of Trump. For the second time, the Republican Governors Association has accused Murphy of being “unhinged,” because the Goldman Sachs banker-turned-ambassador-to-Germany keeps comparing Trump’s early days to the rise of the Nazi party.

“Murphy’s comments show that he lacks necessary judgment to lead New Jersey,” said RGA spokesman Jon Thompson in an email. “Murphy compares the sitting president of the United States to a mass-murdering dictator that committed genocide, and it’s beyond normal for a far-left partisan attack. It’s unbecoming of a statewide office candidate, and it directly disrespects the office of the presidency.”

AD
AD

Trump, who won the presidency despite low favorable ratings, threatens to be an anchor in 2017’s only major races. In Virginia, Democrats are trying to retain the governor’s mansion; in New Jersey, to reclaim it. Not only do midterm elections tend to break against the party that holds the White House, but both states voted solidly for Democrat Hillary Clinton last year. While the 2018 Senate race map is a struggle for Democrats, and that year’s House map is slanted against the party thanks to tough gerrymanders, this year’s elections look close to ideal for comebacks.

The GOP has tried to take advantage of that, by exploiting the dark language Democrats use to describe Trump — often in front of Democratic audiences for whom too much red meat is never enough.

Murphy’s been the main test case. On Feb. 21, trackers released a video of Murphy citing his knowledge of German history to warn that Trump’s first moves had historical resonance.

AD
AD

“I know what was being said about somebody else in the 1920s,” he said, in a clip filmed late in 2016. “And you could unfortunately drop in names from today into those observations from the 1920s, and the moves that have been made early on only aide and abet that argument.”

Republicans went ballistic, with five RGA statements condemning Murphy; Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, the GOP front-runner, demanded an apology. But Murphy didn’t play along. “It’s not surprising that Kim Guadagno would stay silent when Donald Trump appointed alt-right leaders like Stephen K. Bannon to high posts in his administration, and when he responded to repeated questions about the rise of anti-Semitism by talking about his electoral college victory,” a Murphy spokesman told the Star-Ledger.

There’s been no polling since the comment, but over the weekend, local public affairs host Steve Adubato pressed Murphy to defend it. Murphy did so.

AD
AD

“We have to be on the edge of our seat, the comparison, at least in the early stages, and I’ve also said — ‘please God, I’m not suggesting it ends like it ended in Germany,’ ” said Murphy. “But one thing you realize, when you start discriminating against people, based on whatever you want to fill in the blank, in this case religion, based on how they worship — a Muslim ban in this case, when that train gets going down the tracks, the one lesson I know from Germany is it can get out ahead of you and you can never catch that train.”

That earned a fresh RGA condemnation, and once again, Murphy framed it as a fight he was perfectly willing to have.

“If the RGA would like to spend 2017 litigating Donald Trump’s xenophobia, we would welcome that debate,” said Murphy senior strategist Julie Roginsky. “When they are finished defending Donald Trump’s message of exclusion, perhaps we could next ask them to devote some time to defending Gov. Christie’s economic record in New Jersey.”

AD
AD

Republicans have tried something similar in Virginia, where the presidential race was closer last year. Democrat Tom Perriello, the former congressman now running as a “pragmatic progressive” for governor, told one audience at a town hall that “the election of Donald Trump was a little bit like, you know, a political and constitutional Sept. 11 for us, if I can be honest.” Ed Gillespie, the Republican front-runner, pounced not long after the conservative Washington Free Beacon ran the clip. Perriello apologized right away. Then, he pivoted.

AD
AD