Murphy’s a lock to win reelection, right? Expert explains 3 things that could hurt him

As governor (quietly) puts in paperwork to begin fundraising, Rowan’s Dworkin sums up race 13 months out

Gov. Phil Murphy filed the necessary paperwork with the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission to open a candidate committee account for his 2021 reelection campaign — as expected.

Ben Dworkin of Rowan University. (File photo)

Murphy, whose approval ratings have never been higher, is expected to win a second term easily — becoming the first Democratic governor since Brendan Byrne (in 1997) to do so.

Of course, you never know in politics.

So said Ben Dworkin, the director of the Rowan Institute for Public Policy and Citizenship.

“A week is a lifetime in politics — and we have a lot of weeks to go (before) people actually vote,” he said.

Dworkin said the race is Murphy’s to lose, but he told ROI-NJ he sees three potential landmines that could sidetrack his bid.

Here’s a look:

  1. If Joe Biden wins the presidency

You read that right … if Joe Biden wins. It’s not that Murphy could be up for a cabinet position — it’s the positions Biden takes that could hurt Murphy, Dworkin said.

“If Biden wins, we have to really see what Biden’s agenda is going to be, what he’s going to be pushing,” he said. “There may well be a backlash to his agenda in 2021 — a backlash that would wrap up Phil Murphy, a strong Biden supporter, in some negative ways.”

There’s always a chance of this in New Jersey, where the gubernatorial election is just 12 months after the presidential election.

“Chris Christie won in the year after the (Barack) Obama victory,” Dworkin said. “There’s not the carryover you might think.”

That means a victory by President Donald Trump would help Murphy? Absolutely, Dworkin said.

“The opposite is true, as well,” he said. “If Donald Trump wins reelection, I think there’ll be a strong reaction. The large plurality of Democratic voters in this state are very likely to want to send a message by voting Democratic in 2021.

  1. The COVID-19 response

This has been Murphy’s strongest card so far. Dworkin wonders how long he can play it.

“The COVID response has obviously been working,” he said. “That’s why he’s north of 60% in terms of approval ratings.

“But, he’s operating under emergency powers that were not designed to last months. And, at a certain point — and no one really knows, because all of this is unprecedented — the COVID-19 leadership might turn.

“The people’s perception of how the governor is doing in managing the economy and managing COVID might turn on him.”

This is where operating under executive order could hurt him.

“There are very few outlets for people to complain,” Dworkin said.

  1. Democratic divisions

Or better, can Murphy keep the peace in New Jersey?

“In Washington, the fights between the more moderate wing and the much more progressive wing — regardless of the outcome of the election — will be on full display,” Dworkin said.

Back in Jersey, insiders feel Murphy has locked up deals with Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-West Deptford) and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-Woodbridge), but you never know.

“The governor has certainly locked up the progressive base of the party, but it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that Democrats will find a way to shoot themselves and to find disunity when there should be unity in the effort to move forward,” Dworkin said.

One more thing: Murphy’s chances on a scale of 1 to 10

No. 1 means Murphy has no chance; No. 10 means he is a lock.

“I think it’s a 7 or 8,” Dworkin said.

A strong 7 or 8, he added.

“The governor heads into his reelection campaign in a very strong position,” he said. “This is a Democratic state that has only become more Democratic in terms of voter registration since he got elected.

“He is running with extremely high approval ratings, based on his leadership during the COVID-19 pandemic. And he has locked up, certainly, the progressive grassroots base, which is where the energy is in the party today, and seems to have been able to cut enough deals with the various other party leaders to find some kind of unified front moving forward.”

But, like Dworkin said …

A week is a long time in politics — and we’ve got more than 52 weeks to go.