New Jersey Political Races, Often Raucous, Are Bananas This Year

New Jersey’s first lady is running for U.S. Senate. A former governor who resigned in disgrace is trying to make a political comeback, as a mayor. Two members of Congress and a half-dozen other political luminaries are preparing to campaign for governor.

The state’s senior U.S. senator and his wife are charged with taking bribes, with a trial in federal court set to begin shortly before the June primary. That has forced the senator’s son, a first-term member of Congress, to fight harder to hold onto his seat.

Campaign cycles in New Jersey are typically raucous and long. They are also frequently entertaining. But the number of high-profile political fights taking shape this year, combined with an array of atypical candidates running under extraordinary circumstances, have set an early, take-your-breath-away pace.

“It really is one of those instances where you have to have a scorecard on hand to keep track of who is in and who is out and who is trying to accomplish what,” Patrick Murray, Monmouth University’s director of polling, said.

Francis J. Giantomasi, an influential Democratic lawyer whose firm works for New Jersey candidates in both political parties, said the current cycle was unlike any he had ever seen.

“The volume of viable candidates, and the volume of contested races, is, in my opinion — and I’ve been doing this for 45 years — at an all-time high,” he said.

On Saturday, Jon Bramnick, a state senator, lawyer and stand-up comedian, added to the pileup, becoming the first Republican to enter his party’s primary for governor, a contest more than a year and a half away.

“I get heart palpitations,” Ashley Koning, director of Rutgers University’s polling center, said about the early intensity. “I feel like we’re putting everything in a blender, and it’s going to spin out of control.”

Mr. Bramnick is an unabashed critic of former President Donald J. Trump, and his candidacy will be the first real test of whether New Jersey Republicans can reclaim their historically centrist groove, or if the right wing will continue to dominate the state party’s agenda.

“I’m not going to try to thread the needle,” Mr. Bramnick, 70, said about potentially alienating Mr. Trump’s supporters in the primary. “I don’t think that’s what people want. They want authenticity.”

Explanations for New Jersey’s overheated campaign atmosphere stretch beyond the corruption scandal now gripping the onetime dean of state Democrats, Senator Robert Menendez, who was accused last fall of taking cash and gold in exchange for political favors.

The trend toward candidates entering races earlier has extended each campaign’s cycle in recent years. And as of the 2023 general election, looser pay-to-play rules and an increase in campaign finance limits have allowed candidates to ask more people for more money.

“Candidates are declaring earlier, and contributors are jumping in sooner,” said Rebecca Moll Freed, a Newark-based partner at an international law firm who has advised individual and corporate clients on political giving limits for decades.

“It’s the craziest that I’ve ever seen it,” she added.

Gov. Philip D. Murphy, a Democrat, is barred by term limits from running again, and the election to choose his successor is not until November 2025.

But two Democrats have already announced runs for governor: Steven Fulop, Jersey City’s mayor; and Stephen Sweeney, the former State Senate president. Other Democrats who are expected to join the race include Representatives Josh Gottheimer and Mikie Sherrill and Mayor Ras Baraka of Newark.

Mr. Bramnick will most likely face several primary opponents, including Jack Ciattarelli, who came within three percentage points of defeating Mr. Murphy in 2021.

Mr. Ciattarelli, a former state assemblyman, said he was looking forward to a contested race. “Competition makes us better,” he said.

While there are practical challenges when large fields of well-known candidates compete for finite resources — media attention, contributions and, eventually, advertising space — some political strategists also see an upside.

Rob Horowitz is helping to run the campaign of Ravi Bhalla, Hoboken’s mayor, against Representative Rob Menendez Jr., Senator Menendez’s son.

“The sheer number of competitive primaries and competitive races, which will raise turnout, make it a good environment to be a challenger,” Mr. Horowitz said.

The U.S. Senate race already has four announced Democratic candidates. Representative Andy Kim, who is in his third term in Congress, jumped in first, the day after Senator Menendez was indicted. Larry Hamm, a well-known Newark activist, joined the race the next day, followed by Tammy Murphy, the first lady, and Patricia Campos-Medina, a union leader.

The Borough of Mendham’s Republican mayor, Christine Serrano Glassner, has announced a run for Senate and will probably face several primary opponents, including Alex Zdan, a former television news reporter, and Curtis Bashaw, a hotel-chain owner from Cape May.

Waiting in the wings is Mr. Menendez, who has not ruled out seeking re-election despite being abandoned by most of the state’s Democratic leaders.

“All options are on the table,” Mr. Menendez said through a spokeswoman on Friday. “When the time comes, I will let the people of New Jersey know.”

His poll numbers, however, are dismal. A Rutgers survey released this week showed that just 9 percent of respondents viewed Mr. Menendez favorably. (The survey was taken in December, before the senator began to publicly push back against the charges he faces.)

“We’re all assuming that Menendez is not running — and we don’t know that for sure,” Mr. Murray of Monmouth University said. “And that’s another layer on top of all this.”

The Senate race may not even be the most unusual contest in the state. A former governor, Jim McGreevey, who quit politics in 2004 after announcing he was a “gay American” who had had an affair with a man on his staff, now hopes to be elected mayor of Jersey City.

The resulting cacophony has left candidates scrambling to be heard.

Early Wednesday, Mr. Fulop posted a thread on X, the social media platform previously known as Twitter, that broke the big news of the day hours before it was announced: New Jersey Transit was set to increase bus and train fees by 15 percent.

“Honestly, it’s frustrating and this type of politics makes it hard for me to be positive on the Murphy Administration,” Mr. Fulop wrote.

Soon after, Mr. Gottheimer’s office — under a bold, capital-letter abbreviation for “in case you missed it” — emailed reporters a letter he had written to a New Jersey news outlet that was implicitly critical of Mr. Murphy’s policies. The letter had been published two weeks earlier.

Ms. Murphy also intensified her rhetoric on Wednesday after Tom Malinowski, a former two-term Democratic congressman, endorsed Mr. Kim, her main Senate opponent. In a news release, she cast Mr. Malinowski as a whiny loser who, she said, had lost his last re-election campaign because he failed to promptly report stock trades, an omission that resulted in his being fined.

Ms. Murphy, a wealthy first-time candidate, said members of Congress should not be allowed to trade stocks. (She did not mention the state’s redrawn congressional map, which was negotiated by her husband’s allies and increased the difficulty of Mr. Malinowski’s re-election bid.)

Mr. Bramnick, in declaring his run for governor, used humor and well-known names.

George P. Bush, a son of Jeb Bush, Florida’s former governor, endorsed Mr. Bramnick in a video (in Spanish and English), as did John A. Boehner, a former speaker of the House.

The announcement was accompanied by a video that showed four men playing poker and invoking an enduring rivalry over the name of a popular New Jersey breakfast meat.

“He calls it Taylor ham, not pork roll,” one of the men says of Mr. Bramnick. “He’s got it all.”

He kicked off his campaign at the Stress Factory, a comedy club in New Brunswick.

Karen J. Kessler, a public relations executive in New Jersey who specializes in crisis communications, predicted the campaign season would only get “more intense.”

“It’s just the beginning of frenetic,” she said.

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