TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — New Jersey Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno spent more than seven years touring the state on behalf of Gov. Chris Christie, cutting ribbons and handing out her cellphone number to voters.
While Guadagno is the leading Republican to succeed Christie in Tuesday’s primary , she’s had to work hard to highlight her differences with a governor whose popularity took a beating from the George Washington Bridge lane closure scandal and a failed presidential run eventually won by fellow Republican Donald Trump.
New Jersey and Virginia are the only two states with statewide races this year. Guadagno faces four Republican challengers, including a state lawmaker. Six Democrats, including two state lawmakers, a former Goldman Sachs executive and a former federal prosecutor, are running in their own primary. The winners will face off in a November election that will decide who replaces the term-limited Christie.
Guadagno’s approach has been to embrace the positive: New Jersey’s unemployment rate is at a 16-year low at 4.1 percent.
“I thought it was important for me to run on my record,” she said recently. “What we’re doing in this campaign is what I would do as governor, not what’s been done in the past.”
But a recent survey showed her solidly behind the leading Democratic candidate for governor, Phil Murphy, and her primary opponent Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli is working hard to remind voters of the Christie-Guadagno connection.
“Chris Christie’s lieutenant governor, Kim Guadagno, had seven years to fix things and failed. Had enough? Me too,” Ciattarelli says in an ad airing on cable, radio and online.
Guadagno has strained to show she’s not on board with everything Christie does. Her campaign slogan is “better.” She has attacked Christie’s $300 million statehouse renovation, comparing it to the Palace of Versailles and promising to scrap the project if elected.
She also crossed the governor over his support for a ballot question last year calling for a newly enacted gas tax increase to be dedicated to transportation. She argued it was a back door into increased state borrowing, which led Christie to publicly rebuke her.
Christie has declined to endorse anyone in the primary, saying only that voters would decide and the Republican candidate would be better than any of the Democrats.
But Christie heaped praise on her at a news conference to announce the most recent unemployment rate drop.
“The fact is the lieutenant governor deserves credit for a lot of what’s happened,” he said.
Experts say that Guadagno is in a box when it comes to how to handle her record and Christie.
“She can disavow the governor but alienate his remaining Republican base,” said Peter Woolley, Fairleigh Dickinson University political science professor. “Or she can avoid condemning her unpopular boss but then give up any claim to bring change.”
Whether Guadagno can overcome the Christie connection looks like a bigger question for the Nov. 7 general election, said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute.
Her supporters say she’s impressed them over seven years by working hard to keep businesses in the state. Assemblyman Robert Auth, of Bergen County, said she talked with officials at BMW in his district to persuade them to remain in New Jersey after Mercedes left the state.
“She’s worked the state very hard over seven years,” Auth said.
But those behind-the-scenes efforts aren’t evident to all voters. Joe Ferrandino, of Long Hill, is a former pest-control business owner who said he is out now on disability. He cast an early vote for Ciattarelli because he thinks the Somerset County resident will be stronger on school vouchers, a top issue for him.
But the issue just behind that, he said, was the so-called Bridgegate scandal. Three of Christie’s former aides were convicted in the 2013 political retribution scheme; the governor denied wrongdoing and wasn’t charged. What does that have to do with Guadagno?
“If you lay down with dogs, you wake up with fleas,” Ferrandino said. Still, he said he would likely vote for her in the general election.
“If it comes down to her and a Democrat who wanted to raise taxes I’d have to (vote for her) because it was the lesser of two evils,” he said.
Guadagno, a former Monmouth County sheriff and federal prosecutor, has significant Republican establishment backing. She has led Ciattarelli in public polls, but he’s given her a strong challenge, surprising some experts and qualifying for public matching funds by raising at least $430,000.
Guadagno has nearly $900,000 going into primary day compared with Ciattarelli’s $164,000. They also face three other Republican candidates: Joseph “Rudy” Rullo, Steve Rogers and Hirsh Singh.
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