Election 2017: The 12 votes that could reshape N.J. this November

Voters in New Jersey have helped determine the leadership of the state in the coming years.

No, I’m not talking about the embarrassingly low turnout of voters in the general election that gave Democrat Phil Murphy an easy gubernatorial victory over Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno on Tuesday.

But, rather, the 12 jurors deliberating the fate of U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez in a federal courthouse in Newark. These 12 have the only votes that really matter this November.

Just think of the dominos that could fall if Menendez, the state’s Democratic senior senator, is convicted of the federal corruption charges he is facing and is forced to resign from office.

One longtime political operative already has.

“Imagine if, on the first day of office, Murphy gets to select the replacement for Menendez,” the person said. “Think of what that means.”

Most likely, it means either Richard Codey or Donald Norcross will get the nod.

Codey would be the safe pick, as the selection of the former state senate president (not to mention governor) would likely be cheered on both sides of the aisle.

Selecting Norcross, a U.S. representative, would have much bigger significance.

“There would be a total transformation of power players in the state,” our insider said.

Then, the dominos could fall like this:

  • Current Senate President Steve Sweeney could take Norcross’ seat in the House;
  • A powerful state senator, such as Paul Sarlo, could become the new Senate president;
  • Since Sarlo is from North Jersey, a South or Central Jersey politician (such as Craig Coughlin) could be moved into the Assembly Speaker’s role.

With that, the new administration would have new players in all the top spots.

Why would the politically inexperienced Murphy want that? Because he is politically inexperienced, our source said.

“Steve Sweeney is better prepared to be governor than Murphy is,” the insider said. “And, remember, Sweeney wanted to be governor. Murphy may not want to deal with that.”

Then, there’s the money question.

Codey would need to raise a lot of money — and start doing so as soon as he is picked — because Menendez’s seat comes up for re-election next November. That means Murphy may have to spend as much time raising money for his candidate as he will raising revenue to pay for his many promises.

Norcross, meanwhile, already has a war chest from his House campaign that would be ready for a primary and general election fight.

Picking Donald Norcross obviously would go over well with his brother, South Jersey power broker George Norcross, whom Murphy knows he needs in his corner.

It would go even farther with those elevated to new roles.

“Imagine how much the other power players would be indebted to Murphy because of their new jobs,” the insider said. “That’s worth considering.”

It would also be a much-needed show of strength for Murphy at the start of his term.

Few politicians in this state can say they have solidified power in their own party so quickly.

That hasn’t happened in New Jersey since … well, since Murphy almost simultaneously took out both Sweeney and Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop (the two perceived front-runners to be governor) over a stunningly impressive nine-day swing last fall.

You can call this speculation or conjecture.

Or just call it as it is: Those 12 jurors are casting the only votes that really matter this fall.