Tammy Murphy has talked about maternal and infant health issues since before her husband even ran for office. Once Phil Murphy was elected governor, she was one of the leaders in pushing for increased climate change education in New Jersey schools. And, when the pandemic hit, she was the co-chair of the relief fund that raised — and doled out — millions of dollars.
All of that meant virtually nothing Wednesday at the New Jersey League of Municipalities conference.
Hours after the first lady formally announced her intention to run for a U.S. Senate seat, ROI-NJ randomly surveyed 50 people at the expo at the Atlantic City Convention Center.
Only four could name one signature issue she was attached to. And three of them said, “Something to do with education.”
Only one person named maternal and infant health — and they worked for a health system.
The most common answer: “I haven’t a clue.”
Such a reaction was not a surprise to John Wisniewski, a former longtime Assemblyman (and former gubernatorial candidate) who now practices law when he is not a political pundit.
“I think the natural state of affairs for anybody who is the first lady or the first gentleman is that they are expected to have a public persona, and Tammy has — but is it the first thing on people’s minds? No,” he said. “Maybe it should be, but it’s not.”
Explaining to the voters what she has done — aside from what the governor had done — will be her biggest challenge, Wisniewski said.
“That’s the reality that her campaign is going to have to deal with: Is that her?” he said. “Her biggest calling card is her surname, Murphy. And it remains to be seen whether that’s a net positive or negative, going into an election next year, because there’ll be some people who will view it as a referendum on what they think of the governor’s tenure.”
Maybe — or maybe not.
When asked if people would connect the governor’s policies to her, only 52% said they would. And, of those, more had a negative association (32%) vs. a positive association (20%).
Her gender is less important. While most said they are in favor of the Senate being more diverse (as in, anything except older white males), only 32% said Murphy being female would impact their decision. That number rose only slightly among female respondents (36%).
Wisniewski, who was at the event in an effort to connecting with existing clients and get new ones, said the first lady has a challenge ahead of her.
“When you’re in politics, you tend to think that people should know you because you know all of the hard work you do — but the reality is vastly different,” he said.
Murphy does have one thing in her favor, Wisniewski said: Her signature issue — maternal health — is something that essentially every voter supports. The key for Murphy will be getting the voters to connect the issue to her.
“A big policy initiative that’s an issue that people can relate to is a good starting point,” he said.