The 2017 election for a new governor is more than a year away, but the campaign got started this month when Democratic businessman and former U.S. ambassador to Germany Phil Murphy became the first declared gubernatorial candidate.
Murphy's candidacy comes 13 months before next year's primary and as Republican Gov. Chris Christie and the Democrat-led Legislature grapple with a financially struggling Atlantic City, as well as a more than $600 million deficit in the current year's budget.
Christie's second and final term ends in January 2018.
Until now, the 2017 race has been mostly in the background. But, Christie has suggested that Democratic politics were behind a stalemate in the Legislature over measures to help bail out Atlantic City.
Experts say the race's kickoff means that other potential Democratic candidates, including Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop, state Sen. Ray Lesniak, Senate President Steve Sweeney and Assemblyman John Wisniewski, are more likely to begin taking jabs at one another — and especially Murphy — as they seek to distinguish themselves from their competitors.
Sweeney seemed to get the sniping started recently as he compared Murphy to Jon Corzine, the unpopular former Democratic governor who his lost re-election bid to Christie in 2009 and who, like Murphy, was an executive at investment bankers Goldman Sachs. Murphy countered that anyone who had spent time with him couldn't mistake him for Corzine.
There might be increased pressure on possible candidates like Fulop to get into the race soon because as the mayor of New Jersey's second-largest city, he doesn't have the same ability to weigh in on statewide issues as the other potential Democratic candidates, said Matthew Hale, associated political science professor at Seton Hall University.
Murphy is already addressing statewide issues. On Thursday, he held a live-streamed Facebook chat that, at one point, had more than 100 viewers. He fielded questions on what to do about the state's high property taxes and other issues. That's hard to do if you're not a candidate for governor, Hale said. It's a little easier for the lawmakers, he added.
The race for raising campaign cash also is kicking into higher gear. The governor's office doesn't come cheap. The 2009 race between Corzine and Christie, for example, saw the candidates raise about $40 million, according to state election data.
Murphy said he is loaning his campaign $10 million. Political organizations already are on the scene, with one that supports Sweeney raising $1.5 million, according to state figures. Another group that has connections to Fulop has raised $3.5 million, according to the Federal Election Commission.
The Republicans have been quieter, but experts like Hale say they expect the GOP contest to succeed Christie to swing into action soon as well.
Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, who was twice elected on the ticket with Christie, has set up a nonprofit group that many see as a prelude to a campaign announcement. She has a reputation as a charismatic and business-friendly politician who routinely shares her cellphone number and encourages whoever might be in the audience to call her.
Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick, an attorney and amateur comedian, also is considered a possible candidate, along with Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr., the son of former two-term Republican governor Tom Kean Sr.