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The Trailer: In New Jersey, a Democratic governor runs against the ‘Trump Team’

In this edition: The battle for Trenton, a party intervention in New York, and why one of the people shouting questions at Kyrsten Sinema thinks the media is all wrong about how it looks.

Spelling “Parsippany” correctly since 2021, this is The Trailer.

WILLINGBORO, N.J. — There were two Women’s Marches in New Jersey on Saturday, two events where Gov. Phil Murphy (D) could apologize to his audience for talking about his reelection campaign.

“I don’t want to bring politics into it, but it has to be dragged in,” Murphy told activists at a community center here before he and his wife, Tammy, led them in a march. “Roe v. Wade is going to be either impaired dramatically or thrown out completely. All of our case law that protects reproductive freedoms in New Jersey will come down like a house of cards.”

Elections, Murphy said, have consequences — including the Nov. 2 election in New Jersey that has not inspired the same Democratic panic as California’s recall or the upcoming races in Virginia. While Murphy has consistently polled ahead of Jack Ciattarelli, a former state legislator who has emphasized his accounting background more than his years in government, both candidates are treating the race like the governor could lose it.

The result, one month out, is a race that’s gotten bitter before it’s gotten very close and a test of whether Democrats can hold onto their suburban gains of the past few years even while governing on the left. Murphy's ads portray Ciattarelli, who cut a moderate image in the legislature, as a right-wing acolyte of Donald Trump who would transform a reliably Democratic state into Texas. The Republican calls the governor an “anti-woman” impostor who's trying to transform his adopted state into California, from high taxes financing a robust welfare state to a 2020 decision to let municipalities remove statues of Christopher Columbus.

“This guy's not Jersey,” Ciattarelli said at a Sunday town hall in Parsippany, a northern New Jersey town where Murphy’s 2017 coattails helped unseat a Republican mayor. “As someone who's a proud American who's just as proud of his heritage, if I'm fortunate enough to be your governor for two terms, there will be a Christopher Columbus Day.”

Murphy's popularity has shifted dramatically, in multiple directions, since Ciattarelli launched his campaign 21 months ago. A first-time candidate who become extraordinarily wealthy at Goldman Sachs, Murphy won handily in 2017, and began enacting the liberal agenda he ran on. Restoring Planned Parenthood funding and rejoining an interstate climate compact were quick and easy; a “millionaire's tax” finally made it through the Democratic legislature last year. 

“When he was first running, he checked off all the boxes that I thought were important, and then he checked some more that I didn't even know I should care about,” said Karen Cohen, 59, a city councilwoman in Mount Laurel who attended one of Saturday's marches. “Much more access to cannabis. Much more access to voting rights.”

Not everything in the agenda was popular — Democrats lost legislative two seats in the 2019 off-year election — but Murphy, like most governors, surged in popularity during the coronavirus pandemic. This year's election loomed as a familiar contest between a Democrat running on what he'd delivered and a Republican promising to slash property taxes and make the state friendlier for business. 

The Republican goal, which got easier as the delta variant bit down on the East Coast, was to bring Murphy back down to earth. The governor's approval rating has dipped back into the 50s, and while most voters still approve of his job performance, a poll last week found them almost perfectly divided on whether the state was moving in the “right direction.” 

In an interview, Murphy speculated that slower economic growth, a result of the pandemic and supply chain issues, had complicated matters, but added that there were 1 million more registered Democrats in New Jersey than registered Republicans. He just needed Democrats to realize that the race could be lost. 

“That is our biggest concern,” he said. “Our team is a lot bigger than their team. If our team shows up, we win this thing. If our team does not show up, it's a coin flip. It's that simple. … We spend an overwhelming amount of our time reminding folks what the contrast is and what the choices and how stark those differences are.”

Democrats rode a nearly identical strategy to victory in last month's California recall, but with different resources and rules. Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) raised money not subject to ordinary limits on campaign donations. Murphy, who poured millions of his own money into the 2017 campaign, signed up for New Jersey's public financing system this year. He has outraised Ciattarelli, but not at the clip that he outraised his opponent four years ago. And Ciattarelli, unlike that opponent, was not Chris Christie's lieutenant governor — easy to define and discredit.

“After eight years of Chris Christie, there was just Christie fatigue,” Ciattarelli said in an interview. “I just sense a very, very different mood this time around.”

Like most Democrats in blue or purple states this year, Murphy has simplified the case against Ciattarelli by linking him to Trump. Like every Republican faced with that, Ciattarelli has called it a distraction. In his first debate with Murphy — which, according to the Ciattarelli campaign, led to their strongest 48 hours of fundraising — the Republican mocked the governor for invoking the former president after he'd only done so twice, saying anyone drinking a shot when Murphy mentioned Trump would be “bombed” by the end of the night. While Murphy promised to sign a Reproductive Freedom Act, which would codify Roe v. Wade protections in case a Supreme Court ruling rolled them back, Ciattarelli called it a proposal to “allow abortion in months seven, eight and nine,” portraying the governor as the radical and himself as the moderate.

“I think he knows that this race is very, very close, and it is,” Ciattarelli said. “That's why he continues to use Trump as a campaign tool. It's why he's on TV saying I want to take away women's access to health care, or I want to take away a woman's right to abortion.”

Democrats still see power in the Trump issue, especially because Ciattarelli was attacked for not supporting the ex-president enough during the Republicans' relatively sleepy primary. Two rivals lambasted Ciattarelli for having criticized Trump as “not fit to be president” before coming around. They held him to just 50 percent of the vote, right before a general election in which Democrats would relentlessly attack the nominee for being too pro-Trump — specifically, for having appeared at a “Stop the Steal” rally which, he claims, he did not know was about overturning the 2020 election.

“Trump politicized covid mask-wearing, and that's what my opponent does, too,” Murphy said. “He spoke at a ‘Stop the Steal’ rally with white supremacist, Confederate flags. We've got  video, we've got photographs of it. There's no denying that led to Jan. 6 where, by the way, a New Jersey-native policeman was killed. He has praised Trump's greatest legacy as his three Supreme Court justices. That's a threat, directly to reproductive freedom. So I'm more than comfortable talking about Trump, because these are facts.”

The former president remains unpopular in New Jersey. Mask and vaccine mandates in schools remain widely popular. Ciattarelli is trying to make the election about something else — mostly, about slashing the state's tax rates and attracting businesses. Republicans are confident that they're winning over some voters who rejected Murphy's opponent for years ago, and even rejected Trump last year, thanks to a nominee who, as he tells audiences, has gotten a coronavirus vaccine and never got the endorsement of the NRA. 

Democrats are confident that the GOP base will keep moving Ciattarelli toward less popular positions, or at least force him to answer questions on issues that don't cut his way, with the Texas abortion law as exhibit A. In Democratic strongholds like Newark, Murphy campaign signs urge voters to reject the “Trump team” by reelecting the governor. At Sunday's town hall, while Ciattarelli got questions on taxes and education, he got one that seemed to perk up a Murphy campaign tracker: Would the election be fair? Sidestepping any controversies about election integrity, Ciattarelli went after Murphy for signing a law that created the state's first-ever early voting.

“We used to traditionally vote on Election Day, until this year,” Ciattarelli said. “The polls will open nine days early. It's only going to cost you a hundred million dollars.” (Estimates have put the cost of opening polling stations early around $83 million.)

It's not an issue Ciattarelli brings up on his own. Democrats, he said, were creating a winnable election for a new Republican coalition — he simply needed to get the right people to listen.

“Guess what happened over the last year? Parents got up close and personal with the school curriculum, and a great many do not like what they see now,” Ciattarelli said. “I'm exactly where I've always been on these issues, but I didn't create these issues. The Democrats brought these issues into it.”

Reading list

“Trump, talked out of announcing a 2024 bid for now, settles on a wink-and-nod unofficial candidacy,” by Michael Scherer and Josh Dawsey

A fundraising powerhouse, plenty of rallies and no official campaign.

“100 Percent American,” by Chris Lehmann

The political journey of J.D. Vance.

“In tight governor’s race, Virginia GOP targeting critical race theory to draw votes,” by Paul Schwartzman

The campaign for unhappy parents.

“Breaking up with the Democratic Party,” by Andrew Yang

The Forward Party is born, with a blog post.

In the states

New York. Just weeks after taking office, Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) got the full endorsement of New York Democratic Party Chair Jay Jacobs. “I believe a party torn apart by multiple candidates in multiple primaries for multiple offices will exhaust precious resources, divide us and make us weaker in a year we have to be the strongest,” Jacobs said in Long Island.

The statement didn't stop any ambitious Democrats from making plans. New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, who launched an exploratory bid for governor last month, said in a statement that Jacobs was “clinging to the systems that have empowered him," and dinged him for remaining neutral in the race for mayor of Buffalo, where Democratic nominee India Walton is being challenged with a write-in campaign by Mayor Byron Brown.

New York Democrats are still expecting a battle for major statewide offices next year, with Attorney General Letitia James hinting at a potential run for governor in a speech last week. If she does run, there will be a competitive race to replace her. Zephyr Teachout, who ran for the job and lost in 2018, said in an interview with the Albany Times-Union that she's considering another campaign if the seat is open.

Teachout has run three campaigns, and lost them all — for governor in 2014, for Congress in 2016 and the four-way 2018 race for attorney general. Her 2014 primary run against Cuomo, she said, revealed just how corrupt the party could be, and got kick-started a wave of liberal victories from Congress to the state legislature to staffing in the Biden administration.

“It was an anti-trust, anti-corruption, and anti-fracking campaign,” Teachout told The Trailer, referring to her quixotic 2014 campaign against the former governor. "Cuomo is gone, but the anti-trust issue is not. People now understand that this is not a new issue, but really central to the shape of our economy and to labor power.” 

Colorado. State Rep. Ron Hanks entered the 2022 race for U.S. Senate on Friday, telling the Colorado Sun that a contest that hasn't attracted well-known Republicans needed to be “shaken up.” Hanks is arguably the best-known skeptic of the 2020 election in the legislature, flying to Phoenix this summer to study the Republican-led review of Maricopa County ballots.

Hanks had declined to talk to The Trailer, which was there when he visited the audit site, but he wrote a subsequent letter to constituents about what he saw.

“Sadly, there are many Republican politicians who agree with the entirety of Democrat politicos who are content with the results in 2020, so they have no interest in looking at the results,” Hanks wrote. “… After seeing the legitimacy of the Arizona Audit and seeing the groundswell of citizens interested in truth and fairness, I expect those Rs and Ds are going to find themselves on a rapidly eroding and isolated island.”

Texas. The Republican-run legislature looks likely to approve a map that puts Rep. Vicente Gonzalez (D-Tex.) into a competitive part of the Rio Grande Valley. The third-term Democrat told Politico that he was “very seriously considering” moving from his 15th Congressional District to another, more safely Democratic district — the 34th, where Rep. Filemon Vela (D-Tex.) is retiring.

Utah. Former independent presidential candidate Evan McMullin will run for U.S. Senate in Utah next year, challenging two-term Republican Sen. Mike Lee. "In Utah, we have a better way," he said in a video announcement. "It's more compassionate, selfless and independent." 

Ad watch

Phil Murphy, “Repeated.” The voice of President Donald Trump starts this new spot from New Jersey's Democratic governor: “Children are almost immune from this disease.” Trump made that claim on “Fox & Friends” 14 months ago, and Republican nominee Jack Ciattarelli said “children are not vulnerable to this virus” one year later, arguing that mask mandates in schools would not be necessary. This ads hit him for that quote, part of the ongoing Democratic polarization of the vaccine and mask issue, which polls well in the state.

New Jersey State Democratic Committee, “Opioid.” Murphy's party has been running its own ad campaign for the governor and the Democratic ticket, making some negative attacks that don't appear in other media. Here, the party hits Ciattarelli over one of the businesses he ran, but doesn't often discuss: A publishing company that distributed material, paid for by pharmaceutical companies, downplaying the risks of opioid prescription. “He profited while New Jersey families suffered,” a narrator says.

Glenn Youngkin, “Parents.” Republicans in Virginia have allied their campaigns to the conservative effort to take some sexual and racial content out of school curricula. In last week's final debate, Democratic nominee Terry McAuliffe went back and forth with Youngkin on parents protesting some material in a school library, ending with the Democrat saying “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach." The Youngkin campaign has relentlessly attacked that remark ever since, getting a boost when former governor L. Douglas Wilder, a fellow Democrat but sometimes McAuliffe critic, said that the nominee had made a gaffe.

Bruce for Seattle, “Vision.” Depending on the poll, Democrat Bruce Harrell is either leading or in a competitive race in Seattle's mayoral runoff. He's running one TV ad that tells about his multiracial heritage and upbringing, and this ad, which quickly describes his agenda. The word “crime” doesn't appear, with Harrell saying he'd restore the city's “vibrancy” and “invest in improving public safety that protects all people and all neighborhoods without bias.”

Jesse Sullivan, “Jesse Sullivan for Governor.” The primary for governor in Illinois is just five months away, and Republicans haven't nominated a candidate with political experience for the job since 2010 — when they lost. Sullivan, a venture capitalist, introduces himself to primary voters with only one biographical detail ("growing up in central Illinois") and some sweeping music and images. “Illinois is now known for three things: high taxes, corruption and crime," he says.

Poll watch

Virginia governor 2021 (Fox News, 908 registered voters)

Terry McAuliffe (D): 48%
Glenn Youngkin (R): 44%

This poll was mostly conducted before the final debate between McAuliffe and Youngkin, and Republicans believe they got a boost from that — especially from the aforementioned McAuliffe answer on schools. Just 7 percent of voters say that “education” is their top issue, compared with 32 percent who say “the economy and jobs” and 20 percent who say the pandemic. Like in every recent poll, mask and vaccine mandates are more popular than the individual Democrats who support them. Youngkin gets some crossover support, with 39 percent of Virginians who favor vaccinate mandates for teachers going for the Republican.

“Do you support or oppose a law that allows abortions, but only up to the time cardiac activity is detected about 6 to 8 weeks into pregnancy?” (Marist, 1,029 registered voters)

Support: 32%
Oppose: 57%

In elections, abortion rights are fought over the extremes — Democrats highlighting the least popular antiabortion policy, Republicans highlighting the least popular abortion rights policy. The new Texas abortion law, described here as “a law that allows private citizens to sue abortion providers or anyone who assists a woman in getting an abortion,” is fantastically unpopular, with just 18 percent of voters favoring it when put that way. The policy that the law was designed for, limiting abortion long before a fetus is viable outside the womb, has fewer critics. Forty-four percent of Latino voters in this sample support the idea; less than half as many support the Texas law.

Nevada Senate 2022 (Nevada Independent, 600 likely voters)

Catherine Cortez Masto (D): 46%
Adam Laxalt (R): 41%

The freshman Democrat won narrowly in 2016, and even though Democrats have won all but one statewide race since then, they've won most by single digits. Masto is in better shape than Gov. Steve Sisolak (D), who suffers from 60 percent of Nevadans now disapproving of his response to the pandemic. But Republicans are still viewed more negatively by more voters than Democrats are, more evidence of a long hangover from the party's response to the 2020 election, when Nevada was among the states where the Trump campaign unsuccessfully sued to stop certification, and where Republicans met to assign an alternate elector slate. 

Dems in disarray

If the controversy over activists confronting Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) seems familiar, that's because you've been paying attention. 

In 2017, health justice activist Ady Barkan confronted then-Sen. Jeff Flake on a plane, urging him to oppose that year's tax cut package, while a camera rolled and captured everything. In 2018, after protesters used the same in-their-face tactics to pressure senators into opposing Brett Kavanaugh's nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court, Republicans warned that a “liberal mob” was getting out of control and would get worse if Democrats won the midterm elections. 

Republicans are saying many of the same things now, expressing disbelief that activists followed Sinema into an Arizona State University bathroom to continue berating her over her resistance to passing the entire reconciliation package — and anger that President Biden did not more forcefully condemn them. (Both Biden and Sinema called the confrontation “inappropriate,” but Biden added that activists getting in politicians' faces was “part of the process.”) 

But the tactic isn't new. It's become more of a drill, as evidenced by the video of LUCHA (Living United for Change in Arizona) activists giving their first names, their personal stories and making specific promises to defeat Sinema while she sat in a bathroom stall. When Sinema returned to Washington on Monday, after being confronted by another activist on a plane, she was followed by more activists asking questions and filming her. 

One of those activists was Melissa Byrne, 42, who ran for vice-chair of the Democratic National Committee in 2017 and worked for both of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.)'s presidential campaigns. She talked to The Trailer about the tactic of “bird-dogging” — following politicians around and peppering them with questions, on camera — and what the point is. A lightly edited transcript follows. 

The Trailer: So, what is the point of this sort of protest? And what's an example of it working as intended?

Melissa Byrne: There's usually two goals. You're either trying to get someone in a gotcha moment and have them say something completely ridiculous, and then have it recorded. Or you're trying to get someone to change their position and do the right thing.

So, during the Affordable Care Act, right, we had people who experience major health-care issues, including cancer, all over the Senate, talking with senators about why it was important to keep the Affordable Care Act. Before John McCain went to the floor on that fateful night, he got bird-dogged by a cancer survivor from New York, and they had a very powerful conversation. It was heart to heart. And then John McCain did that powerful thumbs down.

TT: When you say “we” had people, who is “we”? You've worked with the feminist group UltraViolet, is that who's organizing it? [Conservative outlets have highlighted the funders of groups like LUCHA.]

MB: Generally everybody ends up working in a big coalition together. In non-covid times, it's a lot easier to bird-dog. The Sinema action was with People's Watch.

TT: What's People's Watch?

MB: It formed in the last week. Every group does this differently, from email sign-ups to texts, asking people if they want to get trained. I'm not speaking on behalf of any organization. And the volunteers that bird-dog don't get paid. With Brett Kavanaugh, as soon as people saw Flake get confronted, people just showed up. It was like: Okay, we have training at 9 a.m., noon and 3 p.m. Go get trained, and go to the Senate — we've divided it up into zones. After the airport yesterday, people were asking: How did they know her schedule? How did they know where to go? Come on, it's public information when a flight is landing from Phoenix.

TT: How do you stop it from getting out of hand?

MB: You want to make sure you have a foot between you and the person, at least. You don't want to touch them. The press may be there, other people may be involved, so it can get a little chaotic. With Sinema, for example, we followed her all the way to her car, but we didn't jump into the car.

I think it's really funny that people in D.C. are all up in arms about civility. People not being able to get dentures or not being able to afford a root canal, or live without pain — that is incivility. The criticism is very performative. Mitt Romney can come out and whine about a bird-dog, but nobody says anything about Ted Cruz tweeting out an “F Biden” meme. I think civility is something that's built up to preserve the power of the very wealthy people. The same people that are fine with drone strikes are up in arms about someone being asked questions.

TT: There's been plenty of anger at school board meetings this year, though, from the right. Romney was also confronted in an airport and heckled for planning to vote to uphold the 2020 election.

MB: I think the difference is we're committed to nonviolence. When you have people who come from nonviolent culture of organizing, versus folks that, you know, show up with AR-15s strapped to their chests, or who go from screaming at someone at a school board from issuing violent threats. If the right wants to actually be nonviolent and engage in actual nonviolent organizing, that's their choice, but they're not making that choice. 

I'm just very concerned that there's a Democratic senator who doesn't believe in engagement with constituents. Look at the difference between Sinema and Manchin! I never thought I would be saying something nice about Joe Manchin to a reporter, but when he was confronted by kayakers on his houseboat, what did he do? He came out and had an impromptu town hall, and then he met with them. I think that's the part that's missing from that critique around Sinema. Hey, at any point during this, you could have stopped to engage. 


… 28 days until elections in New Jersey and Virginia, and primaries in Florida’s 20th Congressional District 
… 98 days until the election in Florida's 20th Congressional District